My Take on the Oscars

What did I think of last night’s Oscar telecast? Worst I’ve ever seen. Boring, self-indulgent crap. Clear to me the film industry has lost its sense of self and its own history, lost connection to its audience.

Some lowlights:

1. The host: Is misogyny funny if it’s used ironically? Homophobia? Sexism? Seth McFarlane failed. Not #fail. Not #epicfail. Actually failed, and the academy failed by hiring him to do what he did; after all, his approach couldn’t have been a surprise.

Seth MacFarlane speaks onstage during the Oscars held at the Dolby theatre

2. Quentin Tarantino: A tiresome man who makes derivative movies mistaken by dullards for genius. I have given about 6 hours of my life to the viewing of Tarantino films, to my permanent loss. No more. Peace out, Quentin, you pompous ass.

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3. Musical tributes: Chicago was a poorly made movie released 10 years ago. It should be left to die. All due respect to Shirley Bassey, who is an absolute wonder, the songs are not the best thing about Bond movies. Barbra Streisand makes me gag.  Kristen Chenoweth doesn’t hold my interest. This idea for the show theme was borne of avarice and desperation.

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4. In memoriam: Some actual film giants died in the past year. Ernest Borgnine got about 2 seconds of screen time. Andy Griffith wasn’t shown at all. Why? To make time for world-class egotist Barbra Streisand singing Marvin Hamlisch’s drippiest all-time song. Gag.

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Overall impressions? Yeah, that’s right, Jennifer. You’ve got it right.

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Final Goodbyes of 2012

As the year comes to a close, it’s fitting to remember those who’ve gone but can’t, or shouldn’t be, forgotten.

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Daniel Inouye – Like many Japanese-Americans of his generation, he was reviled, discriminated against, locked away into concentration camps, looked down upon. And like many, to prove his loyalty to his country, he went to war. In Inouye’s case, he suffered, soldiered on and became an honest-to-God American, Medal-of-Honor-winning hero. The story goes that he went into a San Francisco barber shop on his way home, still wearing the uniform of an Army captain (with one sleeve pinned up because he’d lost an arm in the Italian campaign) and the barber refused to cut his hair because he was Japanese. A mark of shame on my hometown. Inouye became the first Asian-American member of the House, and first in the Senate. He died as the most senior member of Congress. He was steadfast in his principles and admired for his humanity.

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Johnny Otis – Brilliant and revolutionary bandleader, showman, musician, developer of talent. ‘Hand Jive’ anyone?

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Etta James – A singer who can get you up dancing and break your heart at the same time. Coincidentally, one of Johnny Otis’ great discoveries.

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Joe Paterno – His players practically worshiped him but his reputation will be forever linked and, therefore, sullied by his connection to a sexual abuse scandal centered around a former assistant.

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Earl Scruggs – A giant. A legend. A pioneer. A person who, defying all odds, brought soulfulness to the banjo.

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Dick Clark – Forget the new year’s eve caricature he became. He broke ground and he sincerely loved teenagers and their music.

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Levon Helm – Listen to him sing. Read his lyrics. You can’t mistake him for anybody else.

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Mike Wallace – The number-one case in point for this axiom: fearless journalists piss powerful people off.

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Maurice Sendak – He turned a very uncertain and unhappy childhood into art adored by millions of children and adults alike.

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Carlos Fuentes – Great writer of brutally honest fiction.

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Doc Watson – Changed the lives of thousands of musicians and maybe millions of fans with his clear and honest singing about the lives of real people.

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Rodney King – Beaten by LA cops, who were filmed doing it. All holy hell broke loose when they were acquitted. Then, in all sincerity, Rodney King asked his townsfolk to get along and stop killing each other. For his efforts, he was turned into a national joke. He deserved better.

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Andy Griffith – On popular TV shows for, like, 50 years but he still died an underestimated and underappreciated actor.

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Ernest Borgnine – Played honest-to-God working-class American men with gravity and honesty. They don’t make guys like him or movies like that anymore, to our great loss.

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Kitty Wells – Raw and honest voice. A trailblazer for women in music. Ran her own life and her own career her way. Also a beautiful, generous and gracious human being.

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Sally Ride – Terms like “role model” and “hero” get thrown around like nickels these days. I just wish kids knew less about people like Britney Spears and Lindsey Lohan and a whole lot more about people like Sally Ride.

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Neil Armstrong – The first line of every single obituary of Neil Armstrong? He was the first man to set foot on the moon. Do you need a second sentence? Every one my age or older remembers the precise moment.

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George McGovern – A war hero who wanted to end the useless and wasteful Vietnam War. As a result, he was chewed up by the Nixon campaign machine and made to look weak, unmanly. He told the truth.

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Margaret DuPont – Graceful, smart, tough as nails. Was she the first American female sports star? Many owe her a great debt of gratitude for making the model many now trade upon.

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Marvin Miller – Created major league baseball as we now know it. Helped players stand up to the organized servitude that was baseball. Hated by many. Hated.

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Hector Camacho – Grew up tough in Spanish Harlem. Became successful, rich, famous. Never lost the chip on his shoulder or need to live wild. Ended bad, as it had to, by a bullet to the head.

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Dave Brubeck – His iconic ‘Take Five’ may be the most recognized jazz song of all time. His bands were tight. His piano was beautiful. He represented his era well.

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Ravi Shankar – Classically-trained. Spiritual. A bridge between very different cultures.

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Andy’s Gravity

A very sad day.

The three men who represent the best of the modern South to me are a politician and two humorists: Terry Sanford, Justin Wilson and Andy Griffith. With Andy’s passing yesterday, the final member of this trio has departed, leaving the South and the entire nation richer for their time with us but profoundly poorer and sadder for their departure.

Terry Sanford was a man who devoted his entire adult life to public service. By his contemporary writings we can see that he was struck during his service in the Second World War by the horror he’d seen visited on specifically-targeted minorities. He recognized the behavior, of course, and he returned dedicated to establishing fairness and equality in his native North Carolina.  He became a socially active lawyer, then one of the South’s young ‘Civil Rights Governors’ and even ran for the presidency in 1964 on that platform. His career moved the needle on the nation’s and the South’s attitudes toward civil rights and race relations. He served as the president of North Carolina’s Duke University, where I came to meet him, then became the US Senator representing the state.  He was warm, hospitable, humorous, humane and gracious, even in challenging moments.  Duke students, during his tenure as president, fondly called him ‘Uncle Terry’ without even the slightest hint of mocking humor. He was exactly that, a kindly but firm uncle to all of us.

Justin Wilson was a humorist and chef who introduced America to Cajun culture and food. He knew of what he spoke and cooked. His father had been Louisiana’s agricultural commissioner. He knew everyone, every nook and cranny of the state, every farming family, their crops and special seasonal foods. He peppered his stories and recipes with his unique turns of phrase, maybe those he’d heard from others; they aren’t well served on the page but must be heard. His cooking was easy, generous, neighborly, his portions ample to a fault. His humorous recordings aren’t often fall-down funny. They’re meant, like his food, to be slowly savored, shared with friends, part of a fully social experience. You don’t eat Justin Wilson’s food take-away. You sit at a picnic table with your family and friends; in any event, his portions would literally kill you if you tried to eat by yourself. You best enjoy Wilson’s dishes in the Southern manner, in a big group of drinking, talking and laughing fellows. That’s the way to fully appreciate his stories of Cajun life too.

And now, to Andy.

When I lived in his beloved North Carolina, a local TV station aired two back-to-back episodes of ‘The Andy Griffith Show’ every single day. More days than not, during my years in Durham, I watched. When I had the early shift, I’d even put it on in the college bar where I worked. I came to appreciate the show’s humor, humanity and even its glacial pace, but came to appreciate Andy Griffith even more. His character was compelling, of course. After all, who wouldn’t want a town sheriff, a neighbor, a dad like Andy? Surprisingly smart. Generally happy. Pleasant. Musically talented. Gentle and kind. Charming. Dedicated to his town, family and friends. But I came to understand the character was only part of the package. Andy himself, that’s Andy Griffith not Andy Taylor, had real chops as an actor. Over time, I searched for and found some of his film work. I loved the high-energy, goofy, almost innocent barracks humor of ‘No Time For Sergeants’ but was completely unprepared for and blown away by his folksy yet sinister and purposefully manipulative turn in Elia Kazan’s ‘Face in the Crowd.’ A lesser actor couldn’t have pulled it off, couldn’t have gotten close. Yet, even after ‘Face,’ he was rarely appreciated for his acting talent. Andy Griffith wasn’t afraid to show the dark side of the South’s famous warmth and charm. Turning on the fake 100-Watt smile at will. Two-faced asides. Conscious betrayals of friends. Greed. Lust. Alcoholism.

And, in the process, he left us a cautionary tale about trusting the authenticity of populist political movements, a lesson we’d be very wise to heed today.

Goodbye, Andy. Together with Terry and Justin, you will be sorely missed.