Category Archives: Los Angeles, LA

Another love story

Part II

Watching “Love Story” again, 50 years later, I found it terribly disappointing.

The film was an enormous hit at the box office, earning $130 million—the equivalent of $1 billion today.

It was a box-office phenomenon, a tearjerker that offered its audience a classic love story filled with amorous scenes and, ultimately, tragedy.

But….

Fifty years later, I found the two leads far less appealing than I remembered.  Ryan O’Neal, who plays highly-privileged Oliver Barrett IV, and Ali MacGraw, who plays Jenny, a super-smart girl from the wrong side of the tracks, encounter each other on the Harvard campus as undergrads.  After some sparring, they quickly fall into each other’s arms.  But I didn’t find either them or their relationship overwhelmingly endearing.

Ali MacGraw’s character, Jenny, strikes me now as borderline obnoxious.  She’s constantly smirking, overly impressed with her brain-power and witty repartee. 

Even Oliver, who falls madly in love with her, calls her “the supreme Radcliffe smart-ass” and a “conceited Radcliffe bitch.”  (As you probably know, Radcliffe was the women’s college affiliated with Harvard before Harvard College itself admitted women.)

Jenny would repeatedly retaliate, ridiculing Oliver by calling him “preppie,” a term used at the time by non-privileged students in an attempt to diminish the puffed-up opinion that privileged prep-school graduates had of themselves.

Jenny may have been Hollywood’s version of a sharp young college woman of her time, but 50 years later, I view her character as unrelatable and hard to take.

I received my own degrees at a rigorous college, a demanding grad school, and a world-renowned law school.  My classmates included some of the smartest women I’ve ever known.  But I don’t recall ever encountering any bright young women who exemplified the kind of “smart-ass” behavior Jenny displays.  If they existed, they clearly stayed out of my world.

The film has other flaws.  In one scene, filmed near a doorway to Langdell Hall (the still-imposing law school building that houses its vast law library), Jenny bicycles to where Oliver is perched and proceeds to make him a peanut butter sandwich while he is so engrossed in his recognizably red Little Brown casebook that he barely notices her presence. This scene is ludicrous.  Law students are traditionally super-focused on their studies.  Well, at least some of them are.  But Oliver’s ignoring a beloved spouse who’s gone out of her way to please him in this way is offensive and totally contrary to the “loving” tone in the rest of the film.  In short, ludicrous.

The movie also became famous for its often quoted line, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”  The absurdity of that line struck me back in 1970 and has stayed with me ever since.  I’ve never understood why it garnered so much attention.  Don’t we all say “I’m sorry” when we’ve done something hurtful?  Especially to someone we love?

Interviewed by Ben Mankiewicz in March 2021 (on CBS Sunday Morning), both Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal (still vibrant and still in touch with each other) confessed that they never understood the line either.  “What does it mean?” Mankiewicz asked.  MacGraw’s response:  “I don’t know.” 

One more thing about that famous line:  If you watch the hilarious 1972 screwball comedy “What’s Up, Doc?” you’ll probably get a kick out of a scene at the very end.  Barbra Streisand cleverly mocks the “Love means never…” line while traveling on a plane with her co-star (and “Love Story” lead) Ryan O’Neal.

Another line in the film, this one spoken by Oliver’s father, struck me as remarkable as I listened to it 50 years after the film first appeared.  When his father, played by veteran actor Ray Milland, learns that Oliver has been admitted to Harvard Law School, he tells Oliver that he’ll probably be “the first Barrett on the Supreme Court.”  Just think about this line.  Who could have predicted in 1970 that someone named Barrett would actually be appointed to the Supreme Court in 2020? (My opinion of that appointment?  No comment.)

One more thing about Jenny:  Yes, women used to give up great opportunities in order to marry Mr. Right, and many probably still do. But I was heartily disappointed that Jenny so casually gave up a scholarship to study music in Paris with Nadia Boulanger so she could stay in Cambridge while Oliver finished his law degree.

What’s worse, instead of insisting that she seize that opportunity, Oliver selfishly thought of himself first, begging her not to leave him.  Jenny winds up teaching at a children’s school instead of pursuing her undeniable musical talent.

I like to think that today (at least before the pandemic changed things) a smart young Jenny would tell Oliver, “I’m sorry, darling, but I really don’t want to give up this fabulous opportunity.  Why don’t you meet me in Paris?  Or wait for me here in Cambridge for a year or two?  We can then pick up where we left off.” 

But I’m probably being unfair to most of the young women of that era.  I’m certainly aware that the prevailing culture in 1970 did not encourage that sort of decision.

When I decided to marry Marv in 1971 and leave my job at UCLA to move with him to Ann Arbor, Michigan, I wasn’t giving up anything like Paris and Nadia Boulanger.  For one thing, I had had a perilous experience in LA with a major earthquake and its aftershocks.  [Please see my post, “I Felt the Earth Move under My Feet,” July 17, 2019.]  I was also aware of other negative features of life in LA.

And shortly after Marv asked me to marry him, we set off on an eight-day road trip from LA to San Francisco, via Route 1, along the spectacular California coast.  Spending every minute of those eight days together convinced me that Marv and I were truly meant to be together. (On one memorable occasion, while dining at The French Poodle restaurant in Carmel, Marv insisted that the server let me, not him, taste our wine before accepting it for our dinner. In 1971, this was absolutely stunning.) 

So I decided, on balance, that moving with Marv to Ann Arbor would mean moving to a tranquil, leafy-green, and non-shaky place where I could live with the man I adored.  The man who clearly adored me, too.

I was certain that I would find interesting and meaningful work to do, and I did.  

Both of us hoped to return to California after a few years in Ann Arbor, where Marv was a tenured member of the University of Michigan math faculty.  (He’d been at UCLA in a special one-year program and had to return to Ann Arbor in 1971.) 

But when that didn’t work out, and we jointly decided to leave Ann Arbor, we settled elsewhere—happily–because it meant that we could stay together.

I’ve made many unwise choices during my life.  The list is a long one.  But choosing to marry Marv, leave LA, and live with him for the rest of our gloriously happy married life was not one of them. 

The unwise choices were my own, and loving Marv was never the reason why I made any of them. 

On the contrary, life with Marv was in many ways the magical life I envisioned when we shared dinner for the first time at Le Cellier in Santa Monica in October 1970.

It was, in the end, and forever, another love story.

Postscript:  If Marv were still here, we’d be celebrating our 50th wedding anniversary this month.

I Shouda Ran

I just came across some great news for joggers.  Researchers have found that strenuous exercise like jogging does NOT boost the risk of arthritis in one’s knees.  A recent study enlisted nearly 1,200 middle-aged and older people at high risk for knee arthritis.  Result?  After 10 years, those who did strenuous activities like jogging and cycling were no more likely to be diagnosed with arthritis than those who did none. (See the July/August 2020 issue of Nutrition Action, noting a study reported in the New England Journal of Medicine.)

And according to a writer in The Washington Post, most data show that running actually helps keep knee joints lubricated.  (See the report by John Briley on August 6, 2020.)

Hmmm…

So…maybe I shoulda ran?

What?

I’ll explain.

When my daughters were small, my husband and I often relied on PBS kids’ programming to keep us from going bananas whenever we were home with them for more than a few hours.

I’m still indebted to “Sesame Street” and “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” for offering wonderfully positive content that expanded our daughters’ minds.

I can still remember many of Fred Rogers’s episodes and his delightful music.  The recent films (e.g., “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”) that highlight his music and the many layers of his unfailing kindness are moving tributes to everything he did.  (I obliquely noted Rogers’s important role in our family when I briefly mentioned him in my 2011 novel, Jealous Mistress.)

Similarly, I can’t forget countless “Sesame Street” sketches and songs we watched over and over again. In addition to stalwarts like Kermit the Frog and Big Bird, I loved less-prominent Muppet characters like Don Music, who’d take out his creative frustrations by crashing his head on his piano keyboard.

One “Sesame Street” sketch I vividly recall focused on words than rhymed with “an.”

The setting is a rundown alley in a big city.  Tall buildings loom in the distance.  As the sketch begins, two Muppets garbed as gangsters breathlessly arrive at this spot.  The savvier gangster tells his partner Lefty that “We got the ‘Golden AN’.”

The word “AN” is clearly written in bold upper-case letters on a metal object he’s holding.  Explaining their “plan,” he points to a “tan van” and says, “This is the plan. You see that van? You take the Golden An to the tan van.  You give it to Dan, who will give it to Fran.”  He adds:  “Everything I’m telling you about the plan rhymes with AN.”  He takes off, leaving Lefty alone.

Lefty, who’s pretty much of a dolt, repeats the plan out loud a couple of times while a Muppet cop is watching and listening.  The cop approaches, identifies himself as “Stan…the man,” and tells Lefty he’s going to get “10 days in the can for stealing the Golden An.”

Lefty then chides himself:  “I shoulda ran.”

This carefully crafted sketch was clearly intended to teach little kids about words that rhyme with “an,” although much of it seemed aimed at parents and other adults watching along with the kids.  How many little ones knew the meaning of “the can”?  The bad grammar in the sketch (“I shoulda ran”) was forgivable because kids watching “Sesame Street” didn’t really notice it, and the whole thing was so darned funny.

But what has stayed with me over the decades is the final line:  I shoulda ran.

When I was growing up, I always liked running fast, and I rode my fat-tire Schwinn bike all over my neighborhood.  So I wasn’t indolent.  But as I grew older and entered public high school in Chicago, I encountered the blatantly sexist approach to sports.  Aside from synchronized swimming, my school offered no team sports for girls.  So although I would have loved to be on a track team, that simply wasn’t possible.  Girls couldn’t participate in gymnastics, track, basketball, baseball, tennis, or any of the other teams open to boys our age.

We were also actively discouraged from undertaking any sort of strenuous physical activity.  It was somewhat ironic that I applied to be, and became, the sports editor of my high school yearbook because I was completely shut out of the team sports that I covered in that yearbook .  And I foolishly gave up my coveted spot in the drama group to do it—what a mistake!

I had a somewhat different experience during my single semester in school in Los Angeles, where I spent the first half of 8th grade.  Although sexism was equally pervasive there, girls at least had a greater opportunity to benefit from physical activity.  Because of the beautiful weather, we played volleyball outdoors every day, and I actually learned not to be afraid of the ball!  I was prepared, when we returned to Chicago (reluctantly on my part), to enjoy a similar level of activity during my four years of high school.  But that would not happen.   The girls’ P.E. classes were a joke, a pathetic attempt at encouraging us to move our bodies.  And things didn’t begin to change until 1972, when Title IX was enacted into law.

Over the years, I continued to ride a bike wherever I lived and whenever weather permitted. I took up brisk walking and yoga as well.  And I sometimes thought about running.

Jogging– less intensive running–took off in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  Why didn’t I begin to jog?

There was a bunch of reasons.  First, I was afraid of damaging my knees.  I’ve always loved aerobic dancing, the kind popularized by Jacki Sorensen.  I’d jump along with the music in my favorite Jacki tape, and I began to notice that jumping was possibly beginning to wear away the cartilage in my knee joints because occasional pain resulted. So I kept dancing, but I stopped jumping.  I figured that running would place even further stress on my knees.

And then there was Jim Fixx.

I didn’t know a lot about Jim Fixx.  He became a media celebrity when he published his best-selling book, The Complete Book of Running, in 1977, and his claims about the health benefits of jogging suddenly showed up on the news.  But in 1977, I had a brand-new baby and a toddler, along with a challenging part-time job, and I couldn’t focus on starting something new like jogging.  By the time I was getting ready to launch into it, I heard the news that Fixx had died of a heart attack while jogging.  He was 52.

Fixx’s death shook me up.  I didn’t know at the time that he may have had a genetic predisposition to heart trouble and he had lived a stressful and unhealthy life as an overweight heavy smoker before he began running at age 36.   All that I knew was that this exemplar of health through running had died, while jogging, at age 52.

Chicago weather also stood in my way.  Happily ensconced in an area that allowed our family to ride our bikes along Lake Michigan and quiet residential streets, and where I could take long and pleasant walks with my husband, I was reasonably active outdoors during the six months of the year when good weather prevailed.  But during the harsh winters, confined indoors, I had less success.  I played my Jacki tapes, I tried using a stationary bike (it never fit me comfortably), and I sampled a local gym.  But I didn’t pursue strenuous exercise.

Now, learning about the recent evidence I’ve noted–that, if I’d jogged, my knees might have been OK after all–I regret that choice.  My current climate allows me to be outside almost every day, and I take advantage of it by briskly walking about 30 minutes daily, much of it uphill.  So that’s my workout now, and it’s a pretty good one.

But I probably would have loved running all those years.

It’s a bit late to start now, but I can’t help thinking:  I shoulda ran.

HOORAY FOR HOLLYWOOD Part III:  “Some Like It Hot”

We’re currently in the middle of a great many “hot” news stories.

But let’s step back, take a break from the news, and think about something else.

Something funny.

How about a film that’s been called “the greatest film comedy ever”?  It’s even been judged “the #1 comedy film of all time” by the American Film Institute.  And it’s one of my all-time favorites.

Countless words have been written about “Some Like It Hot” during the past six decades.  But in case you’re one of those unfortunates who’ve never seen it or haven’t seen it in a long time, I’ll highlight some of my favorite things about it.

Then I’ll tell you my own personal connection to it.

 

HIGHLIGHTS

The writing

Astoundingly clever, can’t-miss dialogue by Billy Wilder and his partner, I.A.L. Diamond, has garnered plaudits from moviegoers for the past 60 years.

The direction

Director Billy Wilder, also heralded for films like “Sunset Boulevard” and “The Apartment,” made his American directorial debut with the comedy “The Major and the Minor” (another film I have a personal connection to; I’ll save that for another day).

Wilder keeps the storyline in “Hot” moving along at an astonishingly rapid pace.  The audience has to stay on its toes to keep up with it.

The casting and plot

Perfection on both counts.

The two male leads are perfect.  Tony Curtis (playing Joe), already established as a young leading man, was cast first.  Once Wilder signed Marilyn Monroe as his female lead, he added Jack Lemmon (as Jerry).   Jack was known for his many appearances on TV, and he’d already starred in “It Should Happen to You” (1954) and “Mr. Roberts” (1955).

Wilder actually had Frank Sinatra in mind for this role, but Frank never showed up for a meeting with him, so he chose Jack Lemmon instead.  Jack turned out to be a brilliant addition to the cast, much better at outrageous comedy than Tony Curtis.

The duo zooms through the film at a breakneck pace, beginning with their desperate search for work as musicians in 1929 Chicago.  When no gigs (for male musicians) turn up, and they happen to witness the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre by mobsters in a Clark Street garage, they move fast.  They borrow some women’s clothes and makeup and add a couple of wigs, hoping to pass as women so they can join an all-girl band that’s about to depart for Florida.  They know the mob is searching for them (“Every hood in Chicago will be after us”) and fervently hope their disguises will keep them from being bumped off.

Marilyn Monroe (M for short) already had enough star power to get top billing over the two men.  By 1959, she had impressed moviegoers in a number of acting roles.  She had also earned her singing stripes in the film “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” (1953), featuring her dynamic performance of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.”  She proved she could excel at comedy as well when Wilder directed her in “The Seven Year Itch” (1955).  (I keep wanting to insert a hyphen between “Seven” and “Year,” but darn it, the film’s title doesn’t have one.)

In “Hot,” she confirmed that she’d mastered both singing and comedy as well as straight acting.  (Too bad she didn’t believe that herself.  She reportedly felt terribly insecure throughout her career.)

Her entrance in this film is simply spectacular.  As Jerry and Joe (J and J for short) approach the train leaving for Florida, M whizzes by, stunning both of them. Dressed in chic black, she’s startled by a puff of steam that highlights her provocative derriere.  Jerry notes her enticing walk, famously blurting out “Look how she moves!  It’s like Jell-O on springs!” adding that “she must have some sort of built-in motor!”  Once on the train, M launches into her first song, a terrific rendition of “Running Wild.”

As Sugar Kane (born Sugar Kowalczak), M latches on to J and J, accepting them as sympathetic new girlfriends.  She confides that she’s always had problems singing with male bands, especially with unfaithful saxophone players, adding that “I always get the fuzzy end of the lollipop.”  (A great line.  She later repeats it when she’s alone with Joe in the train’s bathroom, where he learns of her hopes to marry a millionaire, and he wishes her “the sweet end of the lollipop.”)

Both of the men fall for her, but once they’re in Florida, it’s Joe who devises a complicated plot that leads M to meet with him, posing as a millionaire with a Cary Grant accent, on a borrowed yacht.  There he tells her that “girls leave me cold.”  M is so anxious to land a millionaire that she does everything she can to seduce him.  The lengthy seduction scene is my least favorite part of the film for a couple of reasons.  First, because M (who otherwise comes across as somewhat ditsy but not stupid) is depicted as too easily taken in by Joe’s charade, and second, because it goes on much too long.

Meanwhile, Jerry, who’s dubbed himself Daphne, has met Osgood, an eccentric (and real) millionaire.  We first see Osgood, who’s played for laughs by old-time actor Joe E. Brown, sitting on the hotel porch in a line-up of old geezers ogling the band members when they arrive in Florida.  He soon focuses on Daphne, and while Joe is on Osgood’s yacht romancing Sugar, Daphne is at a nightclub, hilariously dancing the tango until dawn with Osgood.

When J and J meet up later in their hotel room, Jerry, as Daphne, announces, “I’m engaged!”  But when Joe asks “Who’s the lucky girl?” Jerry’s answer is “I am!”

A smaller role, that of hard-boiled band leader Sweet Sue, is played admirably by Joan Shawlee.  When she tells J and J that she won’t put up with her girls getting involved with two things during working hours, liquor and men, Jerry (as Daphne) immediately responds:  “Men? We wouldn’t be caught dead with men!  Rough, hairy beasts with eight hands!”  The audience is clearly in on the joke.

Marilyn’s singing

M does a sensational job performing three 1920s-era songs: “Running Wild,” dating from 1922; “I Want to Be Loved by You,” first performed by Helen Kane in 1928 (who became known as the “Boop-Boop-a-Doop Girl” and seems to have inspired M’s performance here); and “I’m Through with Love,” which actually dates from 1931.  M performs this one, a much sadder song than the others, dressed in black and appearing far more somber, as befits the song and her feelings at this point in the movie.

Costuming

First, the men’s clothes: As women, both men wear authentically designed dresses that women in the 1920s would have worn.  Demure high-necked dresses, for the most part.  These were designed for them by the renowned fashion designer, Orry-Kelly, who’s much better known for the gowns he designed for M.  In some scenes, J and J don women’s hats typical of the 1920s.  And for their appearances on the bandstand, they wear more ornate black garb, appropriate for musicians performing for an audience.

M never fails to look deliciously provocative, even in a bathrobe.  But the dazzling gowns Orry-Kelly designed for her two appearances with the band (one of which she also wears in the scene on the yacht) are jaw-dropping examples of gowns that simply shout “sex.” Even though M is almost completely covered by fabric, the fabric chosen is essentially see-through, so that much of her body appears to be nude.  The designer strategically added beads and sequins in especially revealing places, but the gowns have nevertheless left moviegoers agog.  M wears a fluffy white stole that covers the gowns whenever she’s outdoors, and that stole keeps them from being totally indecent by 1959 standards.

The light-colored dress worn on the bandstand for “I Want to be Loved by You” and on the yacht was designed for the 1959 film, but it has always reminded me of the dress M famously wore three years later.  In May 1962, M appeared at a birthday celebration held at Madison Square Garden for then-President John F. Kennedy.  There were longstanding rumors that she and JFK had been intimate, but these rumors were never proved to be true.

At the 1962 fundraising event, M wore a similarly jaw-dropping sheer-fabric bead- and rhinestone-covered dress while she breathlessly sang “Happy Birthday, Mr. President.”  She reportedly wore nothing under the form-fitting dress, which she paid for herself, and had to be sewn into it.

Sadly, with her personal life in a steep decline, M was found dead in her home, a probable suicide, a few months later.

 

Other notable things about the film:

  • The comic depiction of the Chicago mobsters is classic. Led by bootlegger-in-chief “Spats,” played by longtime movie star George Raft, the film mocks the mobsters’ somewhat idiotic personas.  When we first see Spats in Chicago, he protests being apprehended by veteran actor Pat O’Brien, Irish cop par excellence.  O’Brien tells him, “Call your lawyer if you wanna,” and Raft responds, “These are my lawyers.”  When a few goofy guys stand up, Spats adds, “All Harvard men.”  (This line strikes me as particularly funny.)

When the mobsters later show up for a convention of “opera lovers” at the same Florida hotel where J and J are hiding out, J and J immediately pack their things to leave, but their departure is stymied by some hilarious happenings, leading to a terrific chase scene.

  • The last line has become famous. In Osgood’s motorboat, Daphne tells Osgood that s/he can’t marry him, naming one reason after another.  Osgood is OK with all of them.  Finally, Jerry (as Daphne) is so frustrated that he pulls off his wig and yells, “I’m a man!”  Osgood’s reply:  “Well, nobody’s perfect.”

It’s always hard to come up with a great finish, and the writers debated what to use as the last line.  But after some debate, this one became the last line, and it’s now a cherished part of Hollywood history.

  • The film’s original preview, held at a theater in Pacific Palisades, was something of a flop. The audience wasn’t expecting a comedy, and everyone left thinking it was a failed melodrama.  For the second preview, held at the Westwood Village Theatre, the studio wisely signaled in advance that it was a comedy.  The audience laughed from the very beginning.  (The Westwood Village Theatre is close to my heart.  Another story for another day.)

 

  • The “Florida” hotel, called the Seminole-Ritz in the film, is actually the Hotel del Coronado, a luxurious and historic beachfront hotel located across the bay from San Diego. The scenes shot there were shot first, and all went well.  Later scenes, shot at the studio, proved to be more difficult, especially for M, who sometimes needed 50-plus takes.

The Coronado is still a beautiful hotel, well worth a visit.  I was a guest at a rehearsal dinner held there in 2007, and that event was even more memorable than the wedding itself, held at a location in San Diego.

  • High heels play a role in this film. When J and J arrive at the Chicago train station, they’re both struggling with wearing high heels.  Jerry exclaims, “How do they walk in these things?”  Both actors, trained by a famous female impersonator, eventually mastered wearing heels.  But the appearance of heels on Jerry, near the end of the film, is a tip-off to the mobsters that the newly-disguised men are the witnesses the mob has been pursuing.  (A similar giveaway appears in the 1938 Hitchcock film “The Lady Vanishes,” when a fake nun is spotted wearing high heels.)

By the way, I’ve long disparaged the wearing of high heels.  [Please see the most recent blog post where I’ve argued against them:  https://susanjustwrites.wordpress.com/2017/06/28/declare-your-independence-those-high-heels-are-killers/ ]

 

MY PERSONAL CONNECTION

Whenever I see this film (and there have been countless times), I can never forget the very first time I did.

When my high-school senior prom loomed, my most pressing concern was who would be my date.  My current crush, a friend since first grade who’d metamorphosed into the man of my dreams?  (I hoped so.)  Last year’s junior prom date?  (I hoped not.)  Who would it be?

As luck would have it, an amiable and very bright classmate named Allen T. stepped forward and asked me to be his prom date.  I could finally relax on that score.

Allen and I went on a few casual dates before the prom.  On one notable date, we saw “Some Like It Hot” at a filled-to-capacity downtown Chicago movie theater, one of those huge ornate palaces on Randolph Street, where we sat in the last row of the balcony.

The film was brand-new and terrifically funny, and both Allen and I loved it.  But Allen’s delight was unfortunately cut short.  When he heard the now-famous last line, he laughed uproariously, threw his head back, and hit it–hard–on the wall behind our seats.

I felt sorry for him—that must have hurt—but I still found it pretty hard to stifle a laugh.  Luckily, Allen recovered right away.  And I don’t think it hurt his brainpower.  As I recall, he went on to enroll at MIT.

Although the bloom was off the rose by the time the prom came along, Allen and I went off happily together to dance on the ballroom floor of the downtown Knickerbocker Hotel.

But what I remember even more vividly than the prom itself is the time Allen and I shared our first viewing of “Some Like It Hot.”

 

[You can see what I wrote about my senior prom, and proms in general, in my blog post, “Proms and ‘The Twelfth of Never’”  https://susanjustwrites.wordpress.com/2017/06/17/proms-and-the-twelfth-of-never/ ]

 

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.

 

 

Return to Xanadu, or Have you found your “Rosebud”?

“Rosebud”… every film buff knows the reference. In the monumental 1941 film, Citizen Kane, Charles Foster Kane repeats the word on his deathbed, recalling the beloved sled so cruelly snatched from him during his impoverished youth.  He was still obsessed with its loss, a loss that may have represented the loss of his mother’s love.

I hope you’ve never lost your “Rosebud.”  But it you have, you might look for it at Hearst Castle.

Hearst Castle?  It’s the fabulous estate built by newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst on the central coast of California.  Most filmgoers acknowledge that it was Orson Welles’s inspiration for Charles Foster Kane’s mansion, “Xanadu.”

Today Hearst Castle is a National Historic Landmark (as well as a California Historical Landmark), and this year it’s turning 100 years old.  When I learned of this milestone, I couldn’t help recalling my two visits to that extraordinary place.

It wasn’t always called “Hearst Castle.”  Hearst inherited the original estate at San Simeon from his father (along with even more land and $11 million) when his mother died in 1919.  Together with his architect, the pioneering Julia Morgan, they greatly enhanced it during a span of over twenty years.

Hearst himself later called it “The Ranch.” After he separated from his wife in 1925, he and his mistress, Hollywood film star Marion Davies, spent time at his mansion entertaining prominent guests from the worlds of politics, literature, and film.  In addition to the mansion itself, Hearst acquired an enormous amount of priceless artwork and furnishings on an epic scale.

I first heard about Hearst’s mansion in the early 1970s when my soon-to-be husband (I’ll call him Marv) proposed that we drive up the coast from Los Angeles, where we’d met a few months earlier, to San Francisco and back.  Marv said we could stop at “San Simeon,” and our stop there turned out to be a shimmering highlight of one of the most memorable trips of my life.  Maybe that’s why I remember it so well.

We set out from LA on a beautiful sunny morning in mid-March.  Driving north on Highway 1, we visited Danish-themed Solvang and beautiful Morro Bay en route to San Simeon.

When we arrived, we walked up to a fairly small entrance and joined a few other tourists on a tour of the mansion, where we learned a lot about Hearst and his mansion’s history.  I knew something about Hearst from his role in U.S. history, especially his “yellow” journalistic efforts to embroil the U.S. in the Spanish-American War in 1898.  But before we visited San Simeon, I knew very little about his personal life.

When the tour ended, we were able to explore the outdoor areas by ourselves.  My photo album includes scenes of the two of us at “Hearst Mansion.”  Unaccompanied and unbothered by any staff or other tourists, we roamed around, taking photos of each other, choosing backdrops like the gorgeous Neptune Pool and some of the exquisite outdoor statuary.

Just after leaving the Hearst Mansion, we drove through Big Sur and relished a memorable lunch at Nepenthe.  This charming restaurant, which first opened in 1949, features an outdoor terrace offering a panoramic view of the south coast of Big Sur.  The breathtaking view is still worth a stop.

The rest of our trip included equally memorable stops in Carmel and Monterey, as well as a celebration of my birthday in San Francisco.  Visiting a couple of wineries in Napa, seeing friends in Berkeley (where Marv had spent five happy years as a grad student), and a trip down the coast to return to LA (via Andersen’s Pea Soup just off Highway 1 in Buellton) completed our remarkable trip.

But most unforgettable was our joyful decision to marry each other in a few short weeks.

Fast forward about 35 years.  I returned to Xanadu…er, Hearst Castle, during a road trip with my daughter in 2008.  This visit was very different.  First, we had to enter through a sterile structure, the visitor center, which didn’t exist at the time of my earlier trip.  In this dreary “holding pen,” we waited with a large crowd of other tourists until we were herded onto a bus, herded through the castle, and herded back onto a bus.

This new approach struck me as far too regimented.  Although my daughter was delighted to see the castle and learn about its history during our tour, we had very little chance to roam around the grounds by ourselves when the tour ended.

With the castle’s 100th anniversary coming up, some positive changes are arriving on the scene.  For example, the slate of tours has expanded to include tours with exciting new themes.  Even better:  Most tours now allow visitors free-roaming once their guided tour is over. This appears to be much like the roaming I remember from my first trip.  Visitors can admire the grounds, including the Neptune Pool (recently renovated for $10 million), for as long as they wish.  So it now promises to be a far better experience for visitors than the one I found wanting in 2008.

 

In my mind, Hearst Castle is inescapably linked with the movie Citizen Kane.  That classic film looms especially large because it turned out to play an important role in my own life.

Marv and I had met on the campus of UCLA, where we were both working, and we had rented apartments in the same building on the fringes of the campus.  Our lives, not surprisingly, often centered around UCLA.

One of our most remarkable dates involved a showing of Orson Welles’s film in a classroom building on the campus.

Sometime after we decided to get married, Marv asked me whether I wanted to see Citizen Kane.  I immediately jumped at the chance to see a film I’d only heard about but never saw, even on late-night TV.

Marv grinned and said something like, “I think you’ll like it,” adding, “There’s a surprise in it for you.”  That clearly piqued my interest, and I couldn’t wait to see it.

We took our seats in a bare-bones classroom and began to watch the film.  It was fascinating from the start, beginning with the announcement of Kane’s death on the “March of the News” (patterned after the “News of the World,” a newsreel shown in movie theaters in the 1940s). The story then flashed back to Kane’s involvement in politics, the purchase of his first newspaper (soon followed by other papers), and his marriage to his first wife.

I was totally caught up in the storyline.  Then came the surprise.  A character named Susan Alexander suddenly appeared on the screen.

My birth name is not Susan Alexander.  But I was never very fond of the last name (my father’s) I was given at birth, and I was planning to change it to Marv’s last name when we married.  Now here was a character with the name I hoped to have.

Unfortunately, she wasn’t a totally positive character, and as the story moved on, she became less and less so.  Abused by Kane, by the end of the movie she had become a pathetic alcoholic, engendering sympathy rather than antipathy.

I would have been happier to see a more positive figure with my future name on the screen.  But what’s astonishing is how the character’s name has lodged in filmgoers’ minds.

During the decades since I married Marv and assumed her name, I’ve encountered countless people who, upon meeting me, mention Citizen Kane.  I immediately know that these people (sadly, a dwindling number) have seen the film and vividly recall the name of Kane’s aspiring-soprano second wife, who was actually patterned after the wife of another tycoon, Samuel Insull.

I’ve always been happy that I took Marv’s last name and became Susan Alexander (even when I’ve been confused with other women who share my name).  And I’ve never regretted being associated with a truly great film like Citizen Kane.

 

Do you have a “Rosebud”?  I didn’t have a favorite toy that I lost during my childhood, so I’ve never obsessed over something the way Charles Foster Kane obsessed over his sled.

But if you have a “Rosebud,” I hope that you’re luckier than he was, and that someday you, unlike Kane, succeed at tracking it down.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cycling Through Bliss

I’ve recently embarked on a new exercise program, and I’ve chosen a recumbent bike as one means to accomplish my goal.  It’s fairly boring to cycle in my current gym, a gray and sterile place, so I’ve taken to closing my eyes while I cycle and imagine blissful scenes I’ve cycled through in my past.

I focus on the scenes around my home of 30 years in the eastern section of Wilmette, a charming village on Chicago’s North Shore.  We bought our home in 1975 for less than $70,000, but during the three decades that we lived there, home values increased enormously, and by the time we sold it, its value had multiplied about 14 times.

During those years, east Wilmette became exceedingly desirable because of its location near Lake Michigan and its lakeside beach, harbor, and park—Gillson Park– along with excellent schools, a nearly invisible crime rate, a top-notch public library, a Spanish-influenced small shopping mall called Plaza del Lago, its 28-minute train ride to downtown Chicago, and other highly sought-after features.  Although we were not at the most affluent end of the spectrum in Wilmette, especially as the years went by, we reaped the benefits of living in a near-idyllic setting.

I set my second novel, a mystery titled Jealous Mistress, in this part of Wilmette, which I called East Winnette (blurring its name with that of another North Shore suburb, Winnetka.  [https://www.amazon.com/Jealous-Mistress-Susan-Alexander/dp/1463503652]

I’ve loved cycling ever since my parents gave me my first Schwinn during my growing-up years on Chicago’s Far North Side.  I continued to pursue cycling throughout my high school and college years.  And even when I was a law student at Harvard, I purchased a second-hand bike from a graduating 3L and delightedly rode it through the beautiful Cambridge streets until I myself graduated and passed it on.

While working as a lawyer in Chicago before I married, I bought an inexpensive bike at Sears and loved riding it through Lincoln Park, along Lake Shore Drive, and elsewhere along the lake, near where I’d rented a small studio apartment.

After I moved to LA in 1970, I bought a second-hand bike and hoped to ride it near my apartment in Westwood. But the neighborhood was too hilly for me, and I soon abandoned cycling there.

Landing in Wilmette in 1975, I was determined to once again be a cyclist.  With the bike I moved from LA to Ann Arbor then moved to Wilmette, and the bike my husband acquired in Ann Arbor so he could ride with me there, we set out on our bikes as soon as we could.  Having two daughters complicated things, but as soon as we could somehow attach them to us or to our bikes, or they were old enough to ride bikes themselves, off we went.  Both daughters became avid cyclists, often biking to school during their high school years.

Here’s one of the blissful North Shore routes our family shared, one I remember with special and heartfelt fondness:

Our family of four would cycle out of the detached garage behind our house and set out on our bikes, riding a short way to 10th Street, a sometimes busy through street.  We’d then ride three blocks down 10th Street (carefully, to avoid traffic, which was usually fairly light) to a delightful route down Chestnut Avenue.  This route enabled us to ride for about six blocks without interruption by any curbs or cross-streets because we took the sidewalk on the eastern side of Chestnut, and it had no breaks of any kind.

I always loved our rides down Chestnut Avenue.  Chestnut features huge homes and extensive front lawns, and I memorialized it as Oak Avenue in my novel Jealous Mistress.  In this story, set in 1981, the protagonist-narrator is planning to visit a house on that street:

 

“It was only a few blocks from my house, but those blocks made all the difference in the world.  The houses on my block ran the gamut from ordinary and somewhat cramped (mine) to large and fairly impressive (the one next door…).

But the houses on [Chestnut Avenue] were borderline mansions.  One of them always reminded me of an art museum I once saw in Williamstown, Massachusetts (on a slightly smaller scale, of course).”

My protagonist-narrator hopes that the house she’s visiting “would turn out to be the museum lookalike, but it wasn’t.  It just looked like one of the houses in a Cadillac ad in the latest issue of LIFE magazine.”

 

As our family cycled alongside the magnificent homes on Chestnut Avenue, we savored the uninterrupted ride that led us to where Chestnut ended and flowed into the adjoining suburb of Kenilworth.

Kenilworth was and still is an upscale, somewhat snooty, suburb just north of Wilmette.  Like some areas of east Wilmette, this section of Kenilworth, east of Green Bay Road and close to Sheridan Road, also features huge homes, tall trees, and extensive front lawns.  My older daughter remembers these areas as “park-like.”

Kenilworth’s streets had very little car traffic—a definite plus—but the best thing about them was that they were all paved with asphalt.  In our part of Wilmette, later called the CAGE because of the four streets that bordered it (one of them was ours), the streets were still paved with red bricks.  The vintage bricks (expensive to replace when they broke) lent a certain cache to the streets, and we loved them, but they were so bumpy that they were truly awful for bike-riding.  So whenever we could ride our bikes on the streets of Kenilworth, we knew we’d have smooth sailing for that part of our ride.

When I close my eyes at the gym, I often picture the sights along this route.  During the six months of the year (May through October) when cycling was more-than-pleasant on the North Shore, we’d relish the cool breezes from Lake Michigan and the delightful sounds of birdsong that surrounded us.

But another route was equally blissful.  On this one, we’d head east, tolerating Wilmette’s bumpy brick streets as far as Sheridan Road, where we were able to ride down smooth sidewalks and streets leading to the stunning lakeside gem called Gillson Park.  Riding into Gillson gave us a couple of options:  We could head all the way to the sandy beach, riding alongside Lake Michigan, or we could cycle along Michigan Avenue, the posh residential street just east of busy Sheridan Road.

Gillson was, and still is, a gem for a host of reasons.  One is the accessible beach and harbor, where sunning, swimming, and sailing were happily available in good weather.  Another is the abundance of tall trees and green grassy lawns, where countless barbeques cropped up every summer.  Still another is the marvelous Wallace Bowl, where Wilmette offered free concerts (and Broadway musicals) every summer, and where a concert of patriotic music, followed by fireworks at the beach, was an annual tradition on the Fourth of July that attracted people from all over the Chicago area.

So we would enthusiastically ride into and through Gillson, sometimes stopping to look at the lake, sometimes zooming past Michigan Avenue mansions, always having a glorious time on a breezy, sunshiny day.

Gillson Park turned up as Sheridan Park in a scene in Jealous Mistress.  I couldn’t resist setting a scene in a secluded spot along the water where my protagonist-narrator could meet up with someone who turned out to reveal important secrets.

 

Update to today:  If you’ve read my blog before, you know I live in San Francisco, one of the most beautiful cities in the world.  So you may be wondering why I don’t envision cycling on routes through my new neighborhood rather than the routes stored in my memory bank.

The truth is that although I moved a two-year-old bike from Wilmette to my new home in San Francisco, I’ve sadly never used it.  Why?

The apartment building I chose is perched in a very hilly part of SF, and I soon realized that cycling on these hills would be much too arduous.  Hence I ride the recumbent bike at the gym while my own bike still leans against a wall in my building’s garage.

Instead of cycling, I walk almost everywhere I can in San Francisco.

But cycling still beckons.  I plan to abandon my boring gym and acquire a new recumbent bike of my own, a stationary one that will reside in my apartment, to be ridden whenever and for however long I wish.

I can hardly wait.

I Felt the Earth Move Under My Feet

I was lying in bed, actually.  It was 6 a.m. on February 9, 1971, and I was fast asleep when I awoke to feel my bed gently rocking.  I didn’t know a thing about earthquakes, but it seemed pretty clear that that was exactly what was happening.

The recent earthquake in Ridgecrest, California, has opened up a cache of my memories of that quake.

I was a happy transplant from Chicago (where, in February, it was almost certainly bitter cold) to sunny Los Angeles, where I’d begun a job six months earlier in a do-good law office at UCLA Law School.

Just before beginning work in September, I hunted for an apartment near the UCLA campus and wound up renting a furnished apartment in a Southern California-style apartment just across Gayley Avenue from the campus.  I wanted a (cheaper) studio apartment, the kind I’d just left in Chicago, but the building manager told me the last studio had been rented moments before.  I decided to take a hit budget-wise and stretch my finances, renting a one-bedroom apartment instead.

I loved living at this apartment on Kelton Avenue, a short walk from the campus.  Strolling down the path that led to the law school building, I often passed a young man who began to look familiar.  He was handsome, resembling a good-looking lawyer I’d known in Chicago, and he always looked deep in thought, sometimes puffing on a pipe as he walked.  One Saturday, I spied the same fellow approaching the small outdoor pool on the ground floor of our building, plunging in, but leaving fairly soon instead of chatting with any of the other residents.

There was also a dark green Nash Rambler parked in our building’s small outdoor lot.  This car was located directly below my apartment’s terrace.  (Another story for another day.)  It had a Berkeley car dealer’s name surrounding Michigan license plates, but it also had a parking sticker from UCLA.  Interesting!

I later realized who this intriguing fellow was (I’ll call him Marv) when we were introduced at an outdoor reception sponsored by the UCLA Chancellor in October.  (Everything in LA seemed to take place outdoors.)  I was perusing the cookies on the “cookie table” when a charming woman approached me.  “Are you here because you want to be, or would you like to meet some other people?” she asked.

I jumped at the chance to meet others and happily followed her to a group of men standing nearby.  She introduced me to her husband, a UCLA math professor, who asked me what I was doing there.  When I explained that I was a lawyer working at the law school, he asked where I’d gone to law school.  I had to admit that I’d gone to Harvard, and he immediately turned to one of the young men in the group and said “Marv went to Harvard, too.”

I took a good look at Marv, one of several young men standing beside the professor, and he was the handsome fellow I’d seen around my building and on the path between our building and the campus.

Marv called me the next day, and we began dating.  It turned out that he was the person who’d rented the last studio apartment in my apartment building, and it was his Nash Rambler that I’d spied in the parking lot.

By February we were still dating and inching toward a more serious arrangement.

As I lay in my bed that shaky morning of February 9th, I suddenly heard someone banging on my door.  It was Marv, who had run out of his apartment down the hall and come to rescue me.

I hurried to get dressed and left the apartment post-haste with Marv, who drove off to a coffee shop then located at the intersection of Wilshire and Westwood Boulevards.  As we ordered breakfast, I glanced out of a big plate-glass window and stared at a high-rise building looming just across the intersection. I quickly realized that I was terrified, afraid that the building might come crashing down, killing both of us and everyone else in the coffee shop.

Marv tried to reassure me.  He’d lived through earthquakes during his five years as a grad student in Berkeley, and he didn’t think a disaster of that kind was likely.  He’d simply wanted to leave our apartments on the off chance that our small building might have been damaged.  (I later learned that it did suffer some minor damage.)

We left the coffee shop and began driving around Westwood, noticing some shattered windows in a supermarket on Westwood Boulevard but not much else.  It turned out that we’d lived through a pretty significant quake, measuring about 6.9.  It became known as the Sylmar Quake because its epicenter was about 21 miles north of LA in the town of Sylmar.

The Sylmar Quake caused a lot of damage near its epicenter, but we’d been largely spared in Westwood and most of LA itself.  The worst physical damage I observed at UCLA was at the law library, where a great many books had spilled off their shelves onto the floor.

But the quake had a powerful impact on me nevertheless.  Most devastating was uneasiness caused by the countless aftershocks that followed the quake itself.  Recently, residents of Ridgecrest have reported a similar experience.

I felt the earth move under my feet.  It was a rocking motion like that you might feel on a ship at sea.  For weeks I continued to feel the earth move, creating a shaky feeling I couldn’t escape.

When Marv proposed marriage a short time later (still another story for still another day), marrying him meant leaving LA and moving to Ann Arbor, where he was on the faculty at the University of Michigan.  (His stay at UCLA was for a one-year project only.)

Overall, I had loved the blissful months I’d spent in LA., but I was almost happy about leaving.  I adored Marv and wanted to be with him, so that made the move an obvious choice.  Plus, a move to leafy-green Ann Arbor sounded like a good way to escape the undulating earth under my feet.

Events during the next few months helped to persuade me.  Concerts at Royce Hall on the UCLA campus made me feel uneasy.  So did seeing “Company” with George Chakiris and “Knickerbocker Holiday” with Burt Lancaster at theaters in downtown LA.  If we were seated in the balcony, I wondered whether it would suddenly collapse.  If we were seated on the ground floor, I wondered whether the balcony was going to crash down on top of us.

These unsettling feelings would soon be a part of my past.  I married Marv in May, and by the end of July we were driving to Michigan.  But our arrival at Ann Arbor was sadly disheartening.  I didn’t encounter a leafy-green setting, just a somewhat desolate campus whose abundance of elm trees had all vanished (thanks to Dutch Elm disease), and a town more focused on Saturday-afternoon football games than the heady academic atmosphere I expected.

We needed to find a place to live, and in the midst of hurried apartment-hunting, we pulled in somewhere to escape the heat and humidity of August in Ann Arbor.  Inside a sterile Dog ‘n’ Suds, I sobbed, pouring out my disappointment in our new home.

Having stability underfoot just wasn’t worth it. 

Marv agreed.  We resolved to find another location that would suit both of us.  In California, if that was possible.  Another college town if need be.  Four years later, after a one-year-respite in La Jolla, we finally departed Ann Arbor and set up home elsewhere.

Now, back in California, on my own after Marv’s death, I’ve lived with the prospect of another major earthquake ever since I moved to San Francisco.  So far I’ve managed to elude another quake, but that could change at any time, and all of us who have made our homes here know it.

I could live through another Sylmar Quake.  Or not live through it at all.

In the meantime, I relish my return to sun-drenched California, and I try to squeeze out every drop of happiness I can, each and every shiny and non-shaky day.

 

 

 

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.

 

A Snowy April 1st

On the morning of April 1st, The New York Times reported that the city had woken up to an April snowstorm, “with about 5 inches of snow expected to produce slushy streets and a tough morning commute.”  The storm followed a string of storms that had hit the East Coast in March with heavy snows and damaging winds.

This New York story about snow on April 1st reminded me of another April 1st snowstorm:  The one in Chicago that changed my life.

In the spring of 1970, I was already questioning whether I wanted to spend another year in Chicago.  My work at the Appellate and Test Case Division of the Chicago Legal Aid Bureau had its good points.  I was co-counsel with a lawyer at the Roger Baldwin Foundation of the ACLU (who happily became a lifelong friend) in a case challenging the restrictive Illinois abortion law, a law that made any abortion nearly impossible for all but the most affluent women in Illinois.  Our case was moving forward and had already secured a TRO allowing a teenage rape victim an emergency abortion.  A great legal victory!

But the rest of my life was at a standstill.  I was dating some of the men I’d met, but I hadn’t encountered anyone I wanted to pair up with.  In fact, I’d recently dumped a persistent suitor I found much too boring.  Relying on old friendships led to occasional lunches with both men and women I’d known in school, but the women were happily married and had limited time for a single woman friend.  I tried striking up friendships with other women as well as men, but so far that hadn’t expanded my social life very much.

I also haunted the Art Institute of Chicago, attending evening lectures and lunchtime events.  The art was exhilarating, but good times there were few.  When I turned up for an event one Sunday afternoon and left a few hours later, planning to take a bus home, I was surprised to see almost no one else on Michigan Avenue, leaving me feeling isolated and (in today’s parlance) somewhat creeped-out.  (In 1970 Chicago hadn’t yet embarked on the kind of Sunday shopping that would bring people downtown on a Sunday afternoon.)  Similarly, I bought tickets for a piano series at Symphony Hall, and a series of opera tickets, but again I many times felt alone among a group of strangers.

I still had lots of family in the area.  But being surrounded by family wasn’t exactly what I was looking for just then.

So although I was feeling somewhat wobbly about staying in Chicago, the question of where to settle instead loomed large.  When I’d left law school three years earlier and assumed a two-year clerkship with a federal judge in Chicago, I’d intended to head for Washington DC when my clerkship ended.  But in the interim Tricky Dick Nixon had lied his way into the White House, and I couldn’t abide the idea of moving there while he was in charge.

My thoughts then turned to California.  I’d briefly lived in Los Angeles during 8th grade (a story for another day) and very much wanted to stay, but my mother’s desire to return to Chicago after my father’s death won out.  Now I remembered how much I loved living in sunny California.  A February trip to Mexico had reinforced my thinking that I could happily live out my days in a warm-weather climate instead of slogging away in Chicago, winter after Chicago winter.

So I began making tentative efforts to seek out work in either LA or San Francisco, cities where I already had some good friends.

What happened on April 1st sealed the deal.  I’d made my way to work that morning despite the heavy snow that had fallen, and I took my usual ride home on a bus going down Michigan Avenue to where I lived just north of Oak Street.  The bus lumbered along, making its way through the snow-covered city, its major arteries by that time cleared by the city’s snow plows.  When the bus driver pulled up at the stop just across Lake Shore Drive from my apartment building, he opened the bus’s door, and I unsuspectingly descended the stairs to emerge outside.

Then, it happened.  I put a foot out the door, and it sank into a drift of snow as high as my knee.  I was wearing the miniskirts I favored back then, and my foot and leg were now stuck in the snow.  The bus abruptly closed its door, and I was left, stranded in a snowbank, forced to pull myself out of it and attempt to cross busy Lake Shore Drive.

On April 1st.

Then and there I resolved to leave Chicago.  No ifs, ands, or buts about it.  I made up my mind to leave the snow-ridden city and head for warmer climes.

And I did.  After a May trip to the sunny West Coast, where I interviewed for jobs in both Los Angeles and San Francisco (with kind friends hosting me in both cities), I wound up accepting a job offer at a poverty-law support center at UCLA law school and renting a furnished apartment just across Gayley Avenue from the campus.

The rest is (my personal) history.  I immediately loved my new home and my new job.  Welcomed by friends, both old and new (including my brand-new colleagues at UCLA), I was happy to have left Chicago and its dreary winters behind.  And six weeks after arriving in LA, I met the wonderful guy I married a few months later.

What happened next?  I’ll save that for still another day.  But here’s the take-away:  a snowstorm on April 1st changed my life.  Maybe it can change yours, too.

 

Exploring the Universe with Two Young Muggles

Last week, I happily accompanied two young Muggles as we explored the universe together.

The universe?  Universal Studios in Hollywood, California, plus a few other nearby spots.

The young Muggles?  My astonishing granddaughters, both great fans of the series of Harry Potter (HP) books written by J.K. Rowling and the films based on them.  Eleven-year-old Beth has read all of the books at least twice, and nine-year-old Shannon has seen most of the movies.  Four of us grown-up Muggles came along, all conversant with HP except for me. (I’ve seen only the first film.)  According to Rowling, Muggles are people who lack any magical ability and aren’t born in a magical family.  I.e., people like us.

For me, our trip down the coast of California was an exhilarating escape from the concerns assaulting me at home:  dental issues, efforts to get my third novel published, and—of course—the current political scene.  We landed at the very edge of the continent, staying at a newly renovated hotel on Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica, where we literally faced the ocean and walked alongside it every day.

Bookending our fun-filled encounter with Universal Studios were visits to two great art museums.  Coming from San Francisco, a city inhabited by our own array of wonderful art museums and galleries, we didn’t expect to be exceedingly impressed by the museums offered in L.A.  But we were.

On Presidents’ Day, we headed to LACMA, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where a long, long entry line stretched as far as Wilshire Boulevard.  Because of atypically overcast skies on a school/work holiday?  Not entirely.  Admission was free that day (thanks, Target), so lots of folks showed up in search of fee-less exposure to outstanding works of art.

We viewed a lot of excellent art, but when our feet began to ache, we piled back into our rented minivan and went a little way down the road (Fairfax Avenue) to the Original Farmers’ Market.  Sampling food and drink in a farmers’ market dating back to 1934 was great fun.  We also took a quick look at The Grove, an upscale mall adjacent to the F.M., buying a book at Barnes and Noble before heading back to Santa Monica for the evening.

The next day was devoted to Universal Studios, where our first destination was The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.  Here I would at last explore the universe with two young Muggles.  We walked through other Universal attractions, but they didn’t tempt us…not just yet.  The lure of Harry Potter and friends took precedence.

We’d been advised that a must for first-timers was a ride called Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, so we decided to do that first.  As we approached the ride, we saw Muggles like us everywhere, including swarms of young people garbed in Hogwarts robes and other gear (all for sale at the shops, of course).  As we waited in line for the ride, we entered a castle (constructed to look like Hogwarts), where we were greeted by colorful talking portraits of HP characters hanging on the walls.

Warnings about the ride were ubiquitous.  It would be jarring, unsuitable for those prone to dizziness or motion sickness, and so forth and so on, ad nauseum.  As someone who’s worked as a lawyer, I knew precisely why these warnings were posted.  Universal Studios was trying to avoid any and all legal liability for complaints from ride-goers.

I decided to ignore the warnings and hopped on a fast-moving chair built for 3 people.  I was bumped around a bit against the chair’s hard surfaces, and I closed my eyes during some of the most startling 3-D effects, but I emerged from the ride in one piece and none the worse for wear.  Nine-year-old Shannon, however, was sobbing when we all left the ride together.  Even sitting next to her super-comforting dad hadn’t shielded her from the scariest special effects.

After the ride, we strolled around The Wizarding World, sampling sickeningly sweet Butterbeer, listening to the Frog Choir, and checking out the merchandise at shops like Gladrags Wizardwear and Ollivanders.  Olllivanders featured magic wands by “Makers of Fine Wands since 382 B.C.”  (Prices began at $40 for something that was essentially a wooden stick.)

Overall, we had a splendid time with HP and friends.  But now it was finally time to explore things non-HP.  Our first priority was the Studio Tour.  We piled into trams that set out on a tour of the four-acre backlot of the world’s largest working studio, where movies and TV shows are still filmed every day.  We got a chance to view the Bates Motel (including a live actor portraying creepy Norman Bates), a pretty realistic earthquake, a virtual flood, a plane-crash scene from The War of the Worlds, and two things I could have done without.  One featured King Kong in 3-D (the new Kong movie being heavily promoted at Universal); the other offered 3-D scenes from The Fast and the Furious films—not my cup of tea.  But overall it was a great tour for movie buffs like us.

After the tour, we headed for the fictional town of Springfield, home of the Simpsons family, stars of The Simpsons TV comedy program as well as their own film.  Soon we were surrounded by many of the hilarious Simpsons locations, including the Kwik-E-Mart, Moe’s Tavern, the Duff Brewery Beer Garden, and a sandwich shop featuring the Krusty Burger and the Sideshow Bob Footlong.  Characters like Krusty the Clown, Sideshow Bob, and the Simpsons themselves wandered all around Springfield, providing great fodder for photos.  For anyone who’s ever watched and laughed at The Simpsons, this part of Universal is tons of fun.

The Simpsons ride was terrific, too.  Once again, lots of warnings, lots of getting bumped around, and lots of 3-D effects, but it was worth it.  Maybe because I’ve always liked The Simpsons, even though I’ve hardly watched the TV show in years.

Other notable characters and rides at Universal include the Minions (from the Despicable Me films), Transformers, Jurassic Park, and Shrek.  Some of us sought out a couple of these, but I was happy to take a break, sit on a nearby bench, munch on popcorn, and sip a vanilla milkshake.

When the 6 p.m. closing time loomed, we had to take off.  Once more, we piled into the minivan and headed for an evening together in Santa Monica.  This time we all took in the Lego Batman movie.  I think I missed seeing some of it because, after a long day of exploring the universe, I fell asleep.

On the last day of our trip, we drove to the Getty Center, the lavish art museum located on a hill in Brentwood very close to the place where I got married decades ago.  Thanks to J. Paul Getty, who not only made a fortune in the oil industry but also liked to collect art, the Center features a large permanent collection as well as impressive changing exhibitions.

The six of us wandered through the museum’s five separate buildings, admiring the fabulous art as well as the stunning architecture.  We also lingered outside, relishing the gorgeous views and the brilliant sunshine that had been largely absent since our arrival in LA.  A bite to eat in the crowded café, a short trip to the museum store, and we six Muggles of various ages were off to Santa Monica one last time before driving home to San Francisco.

By the way, at the museum store you can buy a magnet featuring J. Paul Getty’s recipe for success:  “1. Rise early.  2. Work hard.  3. Strike oil.”  It certainly worked for him!