Monday, July 25, 2016

Book Review: Johnny Carson by Henry Bushkin (2013)

The cover of Johnny Carson, by Henry Bushkin, 2013.

Henry Bushkin, Joyce DeWitt, and Johnny Carson, 1980's.
Henry Bushkin worked for Johnny Carson for eighteen years, from 1970 until 1988. Bushkin was Carson’s lawyer and one of Carson’s closest friends during this period of his life. In a 1978 New Yorker profile of Carson, author Kenneth Tynan asked Carson who he entertained at home, and Carson responded, “My lawyer, Henry Bushkin, who’s probably my best friend.” It would seem that Bushkin would be as well-equipped as anyone who knew Carson to solve the enigma that was Johnny Carson. 

Bushkin didn’t talk about Carson on the record very much until he released Johnny Carson in 2013. Bushkin’s memoir of his time spent working for Carson became a best-seller, and it’s the only book of any note about Carson that’s been published since his death in 2005. Johnny Carson is certainly a juicy, dishy piece of gossip, as Bushkin relates numerous stories and anecdotes showing Johnny Carson in a less than flattering light. 

One of the first times that Bushkin met Carson, the talk show host was organizing friends to break into an apartment that his second wife Joanne was renting that Carson suspected she was using to cheat on him. After the break in provided conclusive evidence of Joanne’s unfaithfulness, Bushkin was summoned by a drunken Carson to meet him at Jilly’s Saloon, where Carson proceeded to bare his soul to Bushkin, a man he barely knew. Bushkin quotes Carson as saying, “I can’t quit smoking and I get drunk every night and I chase all the pussy I can get. I’m shitty in the marriage department. Make sure you understand this.” (Bushkin, p.38) It’s a great scene, but as I read it I had to wonder, did it really happen? It just seems a little too perfect, as Carson also reveals in the conversation that his mother, Ruth Carson, “deprived us all of any real goddamn warmth.” (Bushkin, p.38) For Johnny Carson to thus unburden himself emotionally was highly unusual. But maybe this odd conversation helped to strengthen the bond between Carson and Bushkin.

After these first emotionally charged encounters, Carson made Bushkin his attorney, and Bushkin helped in Carson’s divorce from his second wife, Joanne. Bushkin also moved with Carson when The Tonight Show relocated to beautiful downtown Burbank in 1972. Carson and Bushkin played tennis regularly together, and Bushkin and his wife Judy often socialized with Carson and his third wife Joanna. Working for Johnny Carson was never easy, as Carson expected that he would always be Bushkin’s first priority. 

Johnny Carson is filled with stories about Carson’s incessant womanizing, and his frequently icy moods. Johnny Carson shows us Carson at his very best and very worst, and while that’s entertaining to read about, it's hard to get a picture of what Carson was like day to day. 

Bushkin negotiated Carson’s contract with NBC in 1980, which paid Carson a whopping $25 million a year. Carson’s new contract called for him to film three episodes of The Tonight Show a week, for 37 weeks out of the year, which meant that Johnny was making $225,000 for every episode of The Tonight Show. That’s a pretty good chunk of change. It’s a measure of the incredible power Johnny Carson had in 1980 that he was able to cut back his working week to three days. 

A provision of Carson’s 1980 contract was that his production company would sell NBC five television series. This was an opportunity for Carson to become an even wealthier and more powerful man than he already was. Bushkin played an active role in the business side of Carson Productions, and he pushed Carson to become a TV and movie mogul, but Carson simply wasn’t interested in creating an entertainment empire.

The last part of Johnny Carson gets a little dull, as it deals less and less with Johnny Carson and more with Bushkin’s involvement in Carson Productions. Bushkin was eventually fired in 1988, and his relationship with Johnny Carson came to an end. 

Bushkin makes it clear throughout the book that Carson was an extremely difficult man to deal with. Carson could be blunt in assessing himself, once saying to Bushkin, “You know I don’t have much of a talent for happiness. I never have. My mother saw to that.” (Bushkin, p.254) 

While Bushkin claimed that he was surprised when he read in 1978 that Johnny Carson considered Bushkin his closest friend, Judy Bushkin, Henry’s ex-wife, said, “I don’t know if Henry can think of anyone as a friend, except for Johnny. I’ve never known Henry to be really close to anybody except Johnny. I think that was true of Johnny as well. They had each other, and that was that.” (King of the Night, by Laurence Leamer, p.267) 

Maybe it was just the 1970’s setting, but as I read Johnny Carson, I couldn’t help but think that Henry Bushkin would make an excellent character in a Philip Roth novel. Bushkin starts out as an earnest Jewish attorney who eventually becomes the selfish double of his emotionally distant WASP boss. Johnny cheats on his wife, so Bushkin too cheats on his. The novel would practically write itself. What would the title be? Bushkin’s Kvetching? 

Johnny Carson is an entertaining read about one of the most interesting American entertainers of the last half-century, a man whose work still looms large over the late night television landscape that he helped to create.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Concert Review: Chris Isaak at the Pantages Theatre

Chris Isaak, forever cool.

Chris Isaak's most recent album, 2015's "First Comes the Night."
On Tuesday night Chris Isaak brought his usual flair to the Pantages Theatre in Minneapolis. I’ve seen Isaak in concert several times before, and he always brings his A game. (I’ve previously reviewed Isaak concerts in 2009 and 2012.) He’s a really fun performer, you can tell he really enjoys performing live, and he’s very funny and witty. Isaak promised the audience “semi-professional entertainment,” and he and his band more than delivered on that facetious promise. 

Isaak’s band is excellent. Kenney Dale Johnson on drums and Rowland “Roly” Salley on bass have been with Isaak since he first started recording in the mid-1980’s. The relative newcomers are Scotty Plunkett on piano, organ and accordion, lead guitarist Hershel Yatovitz, and Rafael Padilla on percussion. Scotty is the butt of several of Isaak’s jokes, and he tore up “Great Balls of Fire” when given the chance. Hershel Yatovitz effortlessly reproduces the gorgeous mid-century lead guitar sounds that Isaak is known for. Isaak has a fantastic rapport with his band, and they’re just fun to watch.

Isaak looked sharp in his blue suit accented with rhinestones, and he changed into his mirrored suit for the encore. Isaak turned 60 last month, but he still looks and sounds exactly like he did 25 years ago, when he burst onto the scene with his hit “Wicked Game.” Oh, and yes, Isaak can still hit all of the high notes on “Wicked Game.” On his opening song, “Dancin’” he held a note at the end of the song for about 15 or 20 seconds. It was so cool. 

The setlist was a great mix of some of Isaak’s best songs. I was really thrilled that he sang “Two Hearts,” which is one of my favorites of his. He hit all of the high notes on that one as well. Isaak sang a fantastic version of “Forever Blue,” which he performed mostly solo, accompanying himself on acoustic guitar. It’s such a beautiful, haunting song, and to hear it with just his voice and guitar made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. Isaak sang just three songs from his most recent release, 2015’s “First Comes the Night,” which is an excellent album. 

Isaak walked through the crowd as he sang “Don’t Leave Me On My Own,” and he even made his way up to the balcony. If you like retro rock and roll and you want to see a great live performer having fun, see Chris Isaak the next time he comes to town. 

Somebody's Crying
Two Hearts
Don't Leave Me On My Own
Oh, Pretty Woman
Down in Flames
San Francisco Days
Wicked Game
Go Walking Down There
Go Scotty Go (Scotty Plunkett solo)
Running Down the Road
Forever Blue
Pretty Girls Don't Cry
Only the Lonely
Let Me Down Easy
Take My Heart
Can't Help Falling In Love
Great Balls of Fire
Don't Make Me Dream About You
Blue Hotel
Baby Did a Bad Bad Thing/Bye Bye Baby

Big Wide Wonderful World
The Lonesome Fugitive (Introduction only)
The Way Things Really Are

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Book Review: All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque (1929)

Paperback cover of All Quiet on the Western Front, by Erich Maria Remarque, originally published in Germany in 1929.

Author Erich Maria Remarque, 1898-1970.
Erich Maria Remarque’s war novel All Quiet on the Western Front has long been hailed as a classic. It’s another book that I’ve long had on my list of “great books I should read,” and this year I finally read it. It’s an excellent book. Remarque’s prose style is simple and direct, which fits the book. There is no romance in this novel, only cold, hard truths about men in warfare. 

All Quiet on the Western Front is narrated by Paul Bäumer, a German soldier who enlisted in 1914 shortly after the beginning of the World War I. Bäumer relates the mundane routines of Army life, and he also explains how he and his classmates were influenced to enlist by a teacher of theirs. 

All Quiet on the Western Front has aged extremely well. It still feels like a fresh and vital book, even though it’s more than 80 years old. Remarque shows us the futility of wars, especially World War I, where many battles were fought over tiny pieces of land that were not of great strategic significance. 

While Remarque’s novel was highly praised and sold very well after its release in 1929, it was banned in Germany when Adolf Hitler took power in 1933. Hitler certainly didn’t want anyone in Germany to read an anti-war novel that might have made people question the efficacy of war. 

With All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque created a powerful novel that still demands our attention.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Book Review: Hiroshima by John Hersey (1946)

The updated paperback cover of Hiroshima, by John Hersey, originally published in 1946.

Author John Hersey, 1940's.
John Hersey’s 1946 book Hiroshima, an account of the aftermath of the dropping of the first atomic bomb, is a classic of non-fiction reporting. Many critics consider it to be the first work of “New Journalism,” as it contained detailed accounts from six survivors of the blast. Whether or not you agree with the decision by President Harry Truman to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, you should read Hiroshima to understand what the survivors went through. 

Hiroshima is one of those books that I’ve been aware of for a very long time, since middle school or high school at the latest, but I never read it for school, and for whatever reason I simply had never taken the time to read it. This spring, as I was teaching World War II to 10th graders in World History, it occurred to me that I needed to fill this lamentable gap in my reading. I’m very glad I did, as Hiroshima is a short and powerful volume about the horrors of the atomic age.

Hersey’s prose is sparse and spare; there is never an extraneous word, or a florid description. Hiroshima heeds George Orwell’s famous quote, also published in 1946, that “Good prose is like a windowpane.” By that I think Orwell meant that the prose style should be clear and should not get in the way of the subject being viewed, and Hiroshima certainly is a great example of clear, concise writing. 

Hiroshima begins with examining where each of the six people it follows were at the moment the bomb detonated, and then traces their paths through the days that followed. Their stories occasionally intertwine throughout the book. 

Hersey made history as The New Yorker devoted the entirety of its August 31, 1946 issue to the full text of his article. Hersey added a long chapter, “The Aftermath” in 1985, which updated the survivors’ stories over the next forty years. 

It seems superfluous to have a long, drawn-out discussion about the merits of Hiroshima as a work of art. It is a beautiful, haunting book that should be read by anyone who wishes to engage with the many moral issues and complexities surrounding World War II.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Movie Review: Sex and the Single Girl, starring Natalie Wood, Tony Curtis, Henry Fonda, and Lauren Bacall (1964)

Tony Curtis and Natalie Wood discover some shocking information when they read the book the movie was based on.

Tony Curtis and Henry Fonda in Sex and the Single Girl, 1964. Henry looks like he's saying, "I don't know why I'm in this movie."

The lovely Natalie Wood, 1964.

Natalie looking stunning in her white dress, 1964.
Sex and the Single Girl was a change of pace for Natalie Wood as an actress. It was her first comedic role as an adult, and it was the second of three movies she made with Tony Curtis, the first being 1958’s Kings Go Forth, and the last being 1965’s The Great Race. Sex and the Single Girl was based on Helen Gurley Brown’s 1962 non-fiction best-seller. The movie didn’t really have anything to do with the book, the studio just wanted the titillating title, and paid $200,000 for the film rights. 

The movie is an example of a very specific genre, the “sex comedy” that flourished in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. Of course, thanks to the production code that was still in effect, the main characters don’t actually have sex until they are safely married. Perhaps the ne plus ultra of sex comedies from this era is 1959’s Pillow Talk, starring Rock Hudson and Doris Day. Sex comedies are replete with characters assuming false identities, and that becomes integral to the plot of Sex and the Single Girl. 

Natalie Wood is cast as Helen Gurley Brown, and the film has changed her occupation to psychoanalyst. In real life, Gurley Brown worked in advertising and publishing. In 1965, shortly after the movie was released, Gurley Brown got the job that she’s best known for, as she became the editor in chief of Cosmopolitan and transformed the magazine into one of leading women’s magazines. Tony Curtis plays Bob Weston, a writer for Stop magazine, which takes pride in being the lowest of the scandal rags. As the movie opens, another writer for Stop has just published a scalding critique of Gurley Brown’s best-selling book, titled Sex and the Single Girl. But Weston thinks there’s more to this story, and he wants to meet Gurley Brown in person, as he thinks she’s a virgin who is masquerading as a sex expert. (This is not the movie to see if you’re looking for enlightened attitudes about men and women.) It seems odd that Stop magazine would want to publish another story about Gurley Brown, since their takedown of her just appeared. 

Weston goes to Gurley Brown for treatment, but he doesn’t tell her his real identity. Instead he tells her the marital problems his friend Frank, played by Henry Fonda, is having with his wife, played by Lauren Bacall. Gurley Brown is much too nice to Weston, and quickly develops a crush on him. Hilarity, or something meant to approximate it, ensues. 

And there the plot summary stops. It’s no use telling you about how “funny” it is when Weston fakes a suicide attempt, only to have Gurley Brown save him from drowning (it’s always a little sad when Natalie Wood’s movies feature her in a water tank) or how completely “hilarious” the ten minute long car chase at the end of the movie is. I put “funny” and “hilarious” in quotation marks because I didn’t find Sex and the Single Girl to be very funny. It’s a movie that has not aged very well, and it’s ideas and stereotypes about women are hopelessly dated. I know, I should let it go, but the movie just didn’t work for me.

Tony Curtis is a charming and funny actor, but he doesn’t get to do much that’s very funny in this movie. He’s much funnier in Some Like It Hot and Operation Petticoat. I like Tony Curtis a lot, and his voice is just great. You can tell in Sex and the Single Girl that Tony is starting to lose his hair in front, as it’s always combed forward. Natalie Wood does the best she can, and she brings an earnest conviction to the role that is appealing, but the movie doesn’t give Helen Gurley Brown very much depth. I wonder how the real Helen Gurley Brown felt about the movie? I would imagine that she was probably excited that someone as beautiful and talented as Natalie Wood was playing her, but it probably annoyed her that she was turned into a woman who at the end of the movie gives up her career for her man. 

The real problem with Sex and the Single Girl is the script. It’s a real dog, and oddly enough, it was written by Joseph Heller, of Catch-22 fame. The funniest part is probably when Tony Curtis is wearing Natalie Wood’s nightie (long story) and he remarks that he looks like Jack Lemmon in that movie where he dresses up like a girl. Curtis’ character can’t remember the name of the movie, but of course, it’s Some Like It Hot, which Tony Curtis starred in. It’s a funny joke, but then it gets overdone as everyone remarks on how Bob Weston looks like Jack Lemmon. There are also some bewildering jokes about Tony Curtis’ character having to put coins in everything in the Stop office building. Curtis even needs a coin so a mirror will be revealed so he can comb his hair in the men’s room. I assume this was a joke about the popularity of automats, as after the scene in the men’s room Curtis goes to the automat for lunch, but automats had been popular for decades before 1964. They weren’t exactly a new thing, so it seems like an odd joke. 

Henry Fonda and Lauren Bacall don’t have much to do in the movie. But I could listen to Henry Fonda read the phone book. He had such a great voice. The supporting cast is rounded out by Mel Ferrer, playing the rather pointless role of Rudy, another doctor in Gurley Brown’s practice whose only purpose in the movie is to flirt relentlessly with her. Although a successful actor in his own right, Mel Ferrer is probably best known today for being married to Audrey Hepburn. 

Natalie Wood looks beautiful throughout the film, and her Edith Head wardrobe is fantastic. In particular the white dress and the white robe she wears are just jaw-dropping. 

Wood’s biographer Suzanne Finstad researched her contract for Sex and the Single Girl, and discovered that, in addition to being paid $160,000 for her role, Wood had a lot of “riders” in her contract. Wood stipulated the color of the phone that was to be in her dressing room. (Unfortunately, Finstad doesn’t reveal the color.) “She requested white cigarette holders from a shop in London, a special oil of gardenia available in Cairo, and stipulated days off during her menstrual period.” (Natasha: The Biography of Natalie Wood, by Suzanne Finstad, p.290) 

Finstad interviewed Tony Curtis for her book, and she got some very interesting quotes from him. Curtis told Finstad that he had the best on screen chemistry of any of his co-stars with Wood. Curtis said, “Natalie and I had to be careful, because we found each other quite attractive, but I just didn’t want to degenerate the relationship and neither did she.” Curtis then tells Finstad the real reason he didn’t sleep with Natalie: “Natalie’s boom-booms weren’t big enough. To each his own.” (Finstad, p.293) That’s just the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. Of course, that might only be Curtis’ lame excuse. The truth might be that she just didn’t want to sleep with him. Clearly something happened in their relationship, because by the time they started filming The Great Race, shortly after Sex and the Single Girl wrapped, Curtis and Wood were estranged. (Finstad, p.295)

Wood was likely less than happy with the way the script of Sex and the Single Girl made fun of analysis, as during this time in her life she was going to therapy almost daily. Wood said, “I was in analysis for some time, and I found it very beneficial…for me it was a different way of looking at things. I think it made me less introspective, more open to other people. It really changed my life.” (Natalie Wood: A Biography in Photographs, by Christopher Nickens, p.131)

Sex and the Single Girl was released in December 1964. Cue magazine called it “thoroughly coarse, irritating and stupid.” (Nickens, p.126) Despite unfavorable reviews, it grossed $8 million and was the 20th highest grossing film released in 1964. It’s an interesting time capsule, but one that hasn’t aged very well. Despite the movie’s shortcomings, you can still enjoy the beauty and talent of Natalie Wood in it.