Posts Tagged ‘San Francisco’



“I have to travel how far? To climb what? To reach where? The valley of the pills? Oh, Valley of the Dolls.”


My ears were popping already. I hate flying.


“I had Jem dolls and She-ra dolls when I was a kid. Do those count? I bet they relieved anxiety, and I didn’t have to take them with water. Anxiety relief and drought awareness. I was such a responsible kid.”


“And your Judy doll was where?” she asks from the seat next to me.


“I didn’t have one, Miss Garland,” I admit. “But when I watched The Wizard of Oz, sometimes I wore Mom’s black pumps and carried a mini basket with a mini Pound Puppy in it, if that counts.”


“Count, count. Does anything count, you keep asking,” she says.


Keep asking? How long had we been talking? How long was this flight?


Is this a dream; am I here? Where are you?


“My doctor brought up the idea of pills when I told him I was afraid of flying.” I think I was asking her a question.


“Pills, darling. What kind?” How and when did Judy Garland become my pharmacist?


“Lorazepam, I think it’s called. The name reminded me of Gonzo, that blue Muppet with the banana nose. Everyone and their mother told me not to drink on those pills if I try them, or I’ll . . . ”


“End up like me, darling?” Judy smiles. Her imperfect front teeth seem to nudge themselves far out in front of her face, but not at all unattractive. Humanity is so enticing when it appears in a creature of such immaculate talents.


“From what I read, I think most doctors mention Janis or Jimi Hendrix,” I say, as she glances over me, scanning the aisle for the flight attendant. “My ‘Piece of my Heart’ is decent in the shower, but I’m no Janis. And I always thought heroin was her pleasure.”


With no attendant in sight, her gaze drifts back to me, and before she can accuse, I blurt out, “I mean, of course I sing all of yours first.”


What, like I’m going miss an opportunity to suck up to Judy Garland? How often do you end up liking the person sitting next to you on a long flight? Judy Garland was to be my conversation pill, and she always takes effect quickly.


When will I know; where will I

How will I think of my name?


“I get panicky when it comes to pills,” I breathe in and admit. “I’ve seen addiction up close, and I’m terrified of becoming an addict or going through any of the crap that I saw when it happened to others. I don’t want to lose control.”


She eyeballs the aisle again and without looking at me says, “Yes, you do.”


Excuse me? Angry. I get a little angry. I get a little angry with Judy Garland who is sitting next to me on a plane with a destination that is still unknown.


Is this a dream?


“I do? You think I want to lose control? I get on the Oakland Bay Bridge every day to leave San Francisco, and when I get in the car, I put on the song that I want to be listening to if I happen to die that day. If the bridge blows up, I want to be listening to a song that I love, not the morning talk radio with their ‘Hipster versus Geezer’ call-in games.” I’m getting angrier. I’m getting close to shouting, as close as I’ll allow myself in a public place, or anywhere, really. I stop and look up and down the aisle myself.


In a low voice she begins to ask, “Who are you . . . ?”


“Never mind what song I’m listening to!” I interrupt, even though her question calms me slightly. “I’m thinking that if the terrorists chose that morning to come after the liberal, green, free-love loving hippies and hipsters with their billions of dollars and ridiculous trigger warnings (we’re all such victims, pass me a pill), that I want to be listening to one of my favorite songs if I die on the commute to a job that bores me to tears. I do this on the bridge. I do this on BART . . .”


“The who, darling?” Judy asks. “So you have a boyfriend? Not sure I enjoy his name all that much, but if . . .”


“No, no BART is the Bay Area subway that goes under the water. And since it’ll make my ears pop seconds before I’m killed in an underwater tunnel, the music is crucial.”


“Still, dreadful name. Sounds like a placeholder name in a cartoon script.” She takes one last look up and down the aisle before reaching for her purse. I hear the subtle yet familiar rattle before her hand meets her mouth, and she swallows dramatically.


“I’m sorry not to offer, darling. Breath mint?”


“Nice touch,” I tell her, the anger subsiding. “Can I get back to me?”


“Oh, had we left you? I had no idea.” Okay, I loved her again.


“I get on BART (Judy rolls her eyes), and I’m convinced that the day has come when they decide to blow up the tunnel and kill thousands of heathens with one stone. On planes I grip the armrest so tightly turning takeoff or (god forbid) turbulence, that I’m afraid my knuckles will start bleeding. I look around and realize that I’m sitting in a flying murder weapon, and you think this sounds like someone who wants to lose control?”


She looks at me puzzled, an expression not unlike the ones that I used to give an algebra pop quiz in middle school. Why are they quizzing me on things I haven’t learned yet?


Still clutching her purse, she pulls out a cigarette. A cigarette after a breath mint? Eh, who am I to judge? After an exhale to the ceiling (they were polite smokers in her day), she shifts her tiny body weight so she’s facing me with her entire being, which isn’t much. It’s the itty-bitty Judy Garland Show Judy who’s daintily sitting next to me. I think I hear “You Go to My Head” start to play through the earphones that sit in my lap, but I ignore it. Why does that thing start playing randomly when it’s been sitting turned off for hours?


“Your bridge. Your car. Your train. Your DART (I don’t correct her) Your bay. Your death. Why, may I ask, are all the terrorists after you in particular, darling? If you sounded this way and were on pills, I’d have little to no concern for you at t’all. But if this is how you are without pills, maybe you should try one.”


I can’t contain my smile. I always smile when someone exposes a trait or behavior that I thought I kept hidden from the world. And I both love and hate that she knows it.


Judy leans in a bit more, and I focus not on her teeth but on those eyes. “You’re trying to stay in control in situations when your own only guarantee is that you have absolutely none. You try so hard that you even set the score to the disaster scene. I bet you have a playlist ready for morning.”


How will I think of my name?


“Oh no, you do, don’t you, darling?” She leans back, perhaps debating whether to poke me with her cigarette. “Which ones are . . .”


“Many,” I promise quickly, “but ‘The Man That Got Away’ has always been at the top of the list.”


“Fine.” Phew, she’s satisfied and can get it together enough to continue. “Of course you want to lose control. What else is there to do at a time when you have zero chance of gaining it? It’s the trying that makes your knuckles bleed, darling. That, and you need a good moisturizer.”


She places her hand on mine. Judy Garland – singer, dancer, actress, therapist, beautician.


“You watched Valley of the Dolls recently, didn’t you?” she asks, changing and not changing the subject.


“Yeah, one of my publishers is about to release a 50th anniversary edition of the book, which I’ve still never read. I watched it the night my doctor brought up the idea of pills.”


“It’s a dreadful movie, isn’t it?” She is starting to fish; I can tell. We all know tales of her preproduction history with the film.


“I guess it made its point pretty quickly. k.d. lang’s cover of the theme song was in the first and last episodes of Nurse Jackie, so with that and the book, it’s been on my mind.”


Judy’s face lights up. “Edie Falco, I like that gal.”


Obviously I agree, but I’m a tad startled by her praising another actor. It was like the bad girl in detention admitting that she loves the homecoming queen’s performance in the school play. And talk about control – show me a scene when Edie Falco is not in complete control. Judy locked horns with director in the business, and probably maimed a few, but I can’t imagine a director ever taking issue with Edie Falco, onset or off.


So Judy Garland knows who Edie Falco is, but she doesn’t know that BART is a subway train, not my boyfriend? Although I’m still unsure of this plane’s destination, I am sure that I need my hallucinations to be consistent in their knowledge of modern day life. I reach for the rattling bag underneath the seat in front of me, wondering if there’s a pill for such a thing.



Click here to read Part II.



The month of September makes us think about New York City, and New York City makes me think about movies. To be fair, carpet samples make me think about movies, so our autumn leap from the Big Apple to the silver screen is one to be expected. This year I mulled over all of those films whose characters force me to my rooftop where I shout, “I’m moving to New York so I can live just like . . . !” I can bellow my fantasy to the world only for so long before the family of crack heads living across the street asks me to keep it down.

Based on the dollars and cents needed for San Francisco housing these days, shouting from a Manhattan rooftop may be a cheaper option for us nontechies, so until I load up the car and head east, I’ll stick with what I have. I’m moving to New York City so I can live just like . . .


Gregory Peck in Gentleman’s Agreement (1947):


A heroic writer sets out to expose anti-Semitism in New York City, looking more handsome than any writer one could possibly hope to meet – I could think of worse role models.


The three sailors in On the Town (1949):


Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, and Jules Munshin visit New York only for 24 hours, but in that time they destroy a dinosaur exhibit at a museum, get seduced by cab drivers, sing and dance on the Empire State Building, and finish the night by dressing in drag as cooch dancers on Coney Island. Yes, fine, I did most of those things on my last trip to the island, too.


Bette Davis in All About Eve (1950):


Always in the running as one of my all-time favorite films, I would put up with anything Eve had to throw at me, if only I could have Margo Channing’s sunken living room, golden staircase, and Thelma Ritter as my personal assistant.


Jack Lemmon in The Apartment (1960):


Because of Lemmon’s brilliance (culinary and otherwise), I keep a tennis racket in my kitchen as a backup colander. Not to mention the fact that he’s thrilled beyond belief when he almost gets to watch Grand Hotel (1932) from the very beginning. What the heck, Miss MacClaine? I would marry C. C. Baxter in the first ten minutes.


Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961):


You know that pastry in the opening scene is the most exquisite treat prepared in the early hours of some exquisite New York bakery. Of course Holly Golightly ate carbs; don’t start with me.


Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl (1968):


Primarily for the matching leopard coat and hat . . . and the name of her manicurist.


Dianne Wiest in Hannah and Her Sisters (1986):


Some love him; some hate him, but no one makes New York City look more desirable than Woody Allen does in his films. After disastrous attempts at becoming an actress and a hilarious bout with cocaine, eventually Wiest’s character, Holly, finds her calling as a writer, and Wiest found herself with her first Academy Award.


Bette Midler in Big Business (1988):


Do I really have to explain this one? Two Midlers, two Tomlins, a “usual suite” at the Plaza, and special effects at their absolute finest! For most of my childhood I was convinced that I had an identical twin brother . . . sadly I had no clear route to Manhattan for our tearful and polka-dotted reunion.

Cheers and tipped hats to all of New York’s characters, then and now.

You enjoy watching old movies or listening to Billie Holiday or Nina Simone while you cook? Me too! Immediately I feel like we have a deep, dark secret that has bonded us forever, and I’ve already begun designing the interiors of our clubhouse, searching for a tree that will support it, and debating how many pauses our secret knock should include. Will our secret handshake involve footwork, and how hard will we have to work at not making others feel excluded by our superior, special bond? This is how everyone reacts to a shared love of classic film and jazzy tunes, right?

Headphones in place, slowly and silently the singer leans into the microphone. Only she hears the music; I hear only her voice, and at that moment stirs the irregular feeling in my gut where tears get their running start. My tummy tightens, my breathing shortens, and I smile in one final attempt to stop the crying from bursting through its barrier. I’ve come to know my body well enough to recognize this particular smile; one that’s practically a laugh is also the one that announces the arrival of tears. As the singer moves deeper into the first verse, I can see the music slithering slowly up her microphone until it seems to come out of her mouth as smoothly as the lyrics. At this point I’m as close as I will allow myself to be out of control, sitting in a dark movie theatre next to a good friend, both of us crying our eyes out. Two friends on two separate occasions guessed that I would pin the blue ribbon on “Me and Mr. Jones,” but no, “Back to Black” has always been my favorite of Amy Winehouse’s songs. After the take, she smiles and says, “Ooo it’s a bit upsetting at the end, isn’t it?” Smiling at heartbreak . . . I know the feeling.

Before hitting the movie theatre to see Amy (2015), my friend and I enjoyed a sneak peak at Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait, “a personal and intimate exhibition about Amy Winehouse (1983-2011), curated by the Jewish Museum London with help from her brother Alex and sister-in-law Riva. The Winehouse family gave the Jewish Museum unprecedented access to Amy’s belongings, including her guitar, record collection, and iconic outfits.” (Contemporary Jewish Museum website).

Read more about the exhibition on Little Magazine by clicking here.


I fell deeper in love with Amy Winehouse and her music that day, despite the emotionally draining and soul-punching effect of Asif Kapadia’s documentary. The nauseating dizziness that forced me to shut my eyes several times may be the greatest praise that I can shower on this film. I wanted it to end immediately, and I wanted it to go on forever. Having been a fan of Winehouse’s for years, I avoided the movie for weeks, knowing full well what I would be walking into if and when I chose to see it. And let’s face it, folks, we’ve been here before – maybe the Titanic will make it to New York this time; maybe Sean Penn’s Milk will walk out of City Hall; maybe Amy Winehouse will survive it all, record ten more albums, and sing both herself and the world to a happier existence. Alas! I shut my eyes before the film reached its three-minute mark.

At the time when I was just beginning to educate myself on the black-and-white world of classic film, Amy Winehouse’s star was rising. Along with millions of others I was drawn to her voice, her constant nod to the girl groups of the 1950s and 60s, and her inability to be anyone other than the imperfect artist she was at heart. If your exposure to Winehouse was limited to the tabloids, the documentary may not hand you the emotional ass-kicking that it gave me, but for the fans of her music, personality and wardrobe choices, brace yourself – this one’s a troubled track wrapped up in an extraordinary film. When I woke up the next morning, I knew that something more than just the life and death of Ms. Winehouse had kept me from sleeping more than two hours on Tuesday night. But I’ve never been able to ask myself, “What’s wrong?” Instead I have to ask, “Do you know what’s wrong?” I didn’t until I picked up my pen a few hours ago.

Movie theatres, movie rental stores, the used DVD sections of music shops . . . they were all my “safe” places. I can have chats with myself about how living cooped up in an apartment riddled with fear is not truly living, but this one-man self-help seminar doesn’t always do the trick. I wish that I could banish all fear from my body and soul forever, or at least swat it away like a fly when it comes buzzing around my ear. I’m already vulnerable on this particular afternoon – logical or not, the Aurora movie theatre shooting planted a permanent sense of fear in my brain. I was able to tame it a bit on that Tuesday with the very thought that it was a Tuesday, it was the middle of the day, and along with about seven other people in the theatre, I was at a documentary, not a summer blockbuster. Aside from the tears caused by the subject of the film, I remained relatively in control except once, when a man sitting a few rows ahead of us stood up. I followed his every step from his seat to the door and waited anxiously for him to return. Why did he need to get up? Did he have something again fans of Amy Winehouse? Was he a crazed, number-one type fan who felt threatened by the rest of us? Or was it just a case of too much soda and a tiny bladder? The man returned minutes later, my eyes cautiously retraced his steps along with him, and my attention went back to Amy in her final days. After the film we slumped down on a couch in a wine bar across the street from the theatre, discussed it at length, and, as weakened as we felt, admitted that it had been a very pleasant Tuesday.

On Thursday there was another shooting at a movie theatre in Lafayette, Louisiana. The country closed its eyes again, somewhere before the three-minute mark.

Once again I’m left with too many questions . . . what can we do to keep it from always being upsetting at the end?


A few weeks ago, I treated myself to one of life’s sublimely perfect days. The sun and wind had a lovely harmony going, and I decided to spend the day outside, naturally with a book, a coffee, and my treasured spiral notebook. I found a dry spot in North Beach’s Washington Square, spread out my blanket, and settled in for a relaxing day of reading, writing, drinking, and absolutely no uninvited distractions. After a few hours I found a sidewalk table at a neighborhood restaurant and inhaled a sea bass that was so delicious, I sent a picture of it to my dear friend Sandy, creator of the food blog FancyFoodFancy. The North Beach restaurant’s owner and his wife sat and drank wine with me, and we had one of those enjoyable conversations reserved solely for Sunday afternoons. I went back to Washington Square for a bit more writing, but I found the wine flowing through me more than the creative juices. So after another round of drinks with one of my best friends and her boyfriend who happen to live in North Beach, I went home, watched a Madonna concert on DVD (the one I’d been lucky enough to see in-person), and fell asleep a little before 10pm. T’was a smooth yet spontaneous day to remember!

Days like those seem to have become part of my writing process, even if I go through the day without touching my pen. I had just finished my previous post on Psycho, which was a bit draining in a fantastic way, and I had pretty much settled on what film I was going to tackle next. I began writing about it, but for a number of reasons, I had to put that glorious film aside for the time being. As with many of us when we come to a mental crossroad, I looked up into the (mostly) clear blue sky, sure to find my inspiration, direction, or at least a cloud shaped like Bette Davis. Instead I saw a flock of San Francisco residents dance across the park’s ceiling, broadcasting to me the idea that had already been bubbling below the surface.

Like firetrucks with wings, one of these creatures’ most startling qualities is the fact that you can hear them heading towards you before they enter your eyesight. So on this, one of life’s close-to-perfect days, the teeter-tottering of birds across the afternoon sky revealed to me the reason why, hours earlier, I had chosen to reread George Orwell’s Animal Farm that day. You have to admire unconscious advanced planning . . .

Based on a short story by Daphne Du Maurier, the author who also wrote Rebecca, The Birds was originally purchased by Mr. Alfred Hitchcock for his television show. There had been numerous newspaper articles about birds attacking humans for unknown reasons, but I’m not sure what the deciding factor was in terms of making the transition from television to a feature film. When the technical advisors were brought in so Mr. Hitchcock could see if making The Birds was in fact a possibility, one of them came up with a brilliant inspiration piece for the mood of the film — Munch’s The Scream. When it was decided that indeed yes it was possible to create this world of angry birds, Mr. Hitchcock set out to make what many refer to as his most technical film; a film that tallied a total of 371 trick shots after its completion. The explosion of birds from behind the schoolhouse never fails to tickle me, sort of in the same way my dear Wicked Witch of the West does when she takes off from her balcony for the Emerald City. Something wicked this way flies!

The cast, whose names I recognized in the opening credits but failed to pinpoint during my recent viewing, included Suzanne Pleshette and the great Miss Jessica Tandy, always a pleasure to watch. A young Veronica Cartwright plays Miss Tandy’s daughter, a sweet little girl here, but I can’t look at Miss Cartwright without thinking of her vomiting up the devil’s cherry pits in The Witches of Eastwick (1987). Mr. Rod Taylor rounds out the family as the ruggedly handsome son, brother, and ultimate love interest to one Miss Tippi Hedren. Miss Hedren, who had been modeling at the time, was offered the part of Melanie Daniels when, after a number of meetings and interviews, the Hitchcocks took her to dinner and gave a beautiful broach in the shape of three birds in flight.

It always takes me a few days to decide whether or not I enjoyed a Hitchcock film. Over the years I’ve noticed a number of people (many of whom are around my age) mention that they just can’t pay attention to the slow pace of many Hitchcock films. And I must admit that when I was younger, I felt that way about The Birds. Mr. Hitchcock has such a familiar formula of starting off slow, almost until, as Tippi Hedren described it, the audience just can’t stand it anymore. To me however, his cherished formula works perfectly in a film about multiple bird species that begin to attack humans for reasons unknown. So to my less-than-patient readers out there, I’d recommend just buckling down and getting through the beginning — everything Mr. Hitchcock does, he does for a reason. If there’s one thing to make you stick with it, hang on at least for one of my favorite compulsory Hitchcock cameos when he leaves a pet shop with two small white dogs. As rumor has it, the meals provided for those dogs outshone any that were given to the cast and crew.


Slow start or not, he gets me every time . . . I know something is coming; I can hear the flap of the wings or the far-away screech that only seems to get closer instead of louder. And as powerful as Mr. Bernard Herrmann’s score was in the showers of the Bates Motel, his lack of sound in The Birds is what, I believe, makes it so terrifying. The frightening thought of animals taking back the world we believe we’ve dominated is further enhanced by the thought they absolutely have the right to do so! But I don’t feel the need to go too far in analyzing the symbolism of the birds or of Tippi Hedren’s sexuality and its bringing on the attacks; while those conversations are certainly entertaining, it’s one more approach that I feel has been done repeatedly.

Abstract symbolic analysis of The Birds always sounded like over-interpretation to me, especially when I figured Mr. Hitchcock went to great lengths to leave explanation out of the film. I used to love symbolic analysis, mostly when I studied folklore with a Freudian folklorist, and for some aspects of our culture, it seems to be a very useful approach. The more I write about films, however, the further I seem to move from interest in symbolism within the story itself. Absolutely nothing to sniff at, and I embrace interpretations of film on any level, but it’s interesting to notice how my eye has begun to shift. This is one of those movies I want to lay on the laps of my readers, rather than shove it down your throats, and say “well what do you think?”

I do get a kick out the ways in which my current movie of obsession enters my mind while I’m working on it. This one took me some time to get through for a number of reasons, but ever since I started thinking about it, I felt like the birds of the Bay Area had begun to keep their eyes on me. One morning on my way to work, I was sure a number of seagulls were shooting me dirty looks, as if to say “get on with it and write!” And I swear one of them swooped down towards my windshield, pivoting back up towards the sky at the last second. I mention this not to highlight the mechanical silliness of my brain but rather to show the power of a Hitchcock film, this one in particular. Whether I was writing or not, it was affecting me and stuck with me until I finally picked up my pen. But who’s to say that the simple act of writing changed how those birds were picking on me these past few weeks?


One other way The Birds nested in my brain was by bringing back a flock of memories that have to do with bird attacks. I’ve loved two “Catra’s” in my life, the first being a fabulously evil villain on the 1980s cartoon show She-Ra. She-Ra happened to be He-Man’s twin sister, and once again, my childhood psyche found itself drawn to the villain much more than to the heroine. Naturally when our neighbors gave us their cat because too many people in their house developed allergies, I knighted the beautiful young lady “Catra.” And yes, this regal beauty of ours had the hunter’s instinct . . . a number of “presents” were left on our doorstep throughout the years. I had always assumed that the birds lived in fear of our queen, but then we began to notice that one blue bird had no qualms about swooping down on Catra when she was outside. Of course our love for her kicked in and we wanted to protect her, but we also assumed she had messed with (and perhaps ate) the wrong bird family. So fearless was this bird that we truly believed Catra had done something to deserve such repeated attacks. Seeing these creatures that tend to scatter the moment you take a step towards them display such antagonistic behavior is frightening indeed.

The fact that these memories have sprung to mind feels like my personal hat tipping to Mr. Hitchcock and his craft. Creating a film that taps into even the dustiest of memory banks is what draws me in — he makes it real and forces me to acknowledge a few fears about which I may not have otherwise known. I’ve looked and listened to the birds of San Francisco with new sets of eyes and ears, wondering if they sense the new, but perhaps temporary, fear I have of them. While I was sitting in a café trying to sort through all my notes on The Birds, I glanced up to see a roof across the street that was absolutely crawling with pigeons. I felt my heart sank for a moment, and yet a peculiar smile slowly began to take over my face . . .


Add them to your queue.

Eavesdroppers the world over would pay top dollar to live in my San Francisco apartment. I can hear what my neighbors are sizzling for dinner, the fights they have with their boyfriends, and certainly which of the many ear-piercing Hollywood blockbusters are booming on their TVs. When I finally received Gaslight this week, a movie that took quite some time to come out on DVD, my “Ingrid Bergman” mood was in full form — I poured myself a glass of red, tipped up my nose and chin slightly (a significant gesture of my Bergman mood), and settled in for the familiar and soothing sound of her voice. Then suddenly, as if the car had burst from their screen and crashed through my window, the heavy gas and screeching breaks of some recent movie’s car chase hastily drowned out Gaslight’s opening credits. I went from Bergman to bitter in a matter of seconds and stood up to postpone the experience. As I moved towards the TV, I caught a glimpse of her face in her first Oscar-winning role — she told me to sit back down.

Returning to the London house in which her aunt was murdered years ago, Miss Bergman’s Paula Alquist slowly begins to lose her mind. She becomes forgetful and delusional, as gas levels seem to go up and down on their own, pictures disappear off the wall, and strange noises from the attic all distract from her sanity. I know the feeling, but luckily Paula didn’t have San Francisco, car chase-obsessed neighbors to deal with as well! Teasing me throughout the film is that all of these occurrences may be at the hand of Paula’s husband, played by Charles Boyer. Another actor I first met via I Love Lucy, Mr. Boyer always puts a smile on my face, sometimes to the detriment of his role. But that bewitching face and delicious accent makes for a charmingly chilling performance, and he had no trouble giving me a scare or two. 

Helping him along, of course, were Ingrid Bergman’s powerfully subtle reactions, as she slips slowly into what she assumes is mental illness. I loved them together, and the final scene between Miss Bergman and Mr. Boyer is remarkable. This is when I really saw that Oscar fluttering into her hand, and it was surely worth sitting through two or three of the film’s slower moments. The roaring special effects that so hypnotized my neighbors distracted me just long enough to overlook Miss Angela Lansbury’s name on those opening credits. If you can get beyond only seeing her in the autumn of her life, as most of know her, the 17-year-old Miss Lansbury is a trampy treasure in Gaslight, earning her first Oscar nomination for Best Actress in a Supporting Role.

Pick this one up if you come across it . . . it’s a bit of a gem!

Academy Awards for Gaslight (1945): Best Actress in a Leading Role, and Best Art Direction-Interior Decoration, Black-and-White

Add it to your queue.

One of my guarded writing techniques is that I rarely talk about a work in progress, but luckily for me, a number of my barriers are starting to break down. The few I’ve spoken with about Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner all asked some hue of the same question — has it held up after all these years? Since I was born 13 years after its release, I thought for a moment that I wasn’t exactly qualified to answer, but then I began to find the question pretty flattering. Those who asked are certainly aware of my birth year, and yet somehow my answer still carried with it a shade of authority . . . even if is just an opinion. For making an introverted writer feel fuzzy inside, I dedicate this one to you.

The first obligatory response to whether or not Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner has held up through the years has to be “go judge for yourself.” While that may not be the worst advice, it’s also the easy way out of taking a side and answering the question. I’ve always had trouble taking one side of an argument without seeing valid points of the other — if the grass is greener and we flock eagerly to that other side, then yes indeed, the world still cares about color and uses it as a tool of judgment. I believe that Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is a very important movie, and it makes valuable points about the 1960s and beyond, but the subject matter is not what draws me in. If you’ve been kind enough to read some of my other entries (thank you, big hugs!), then you may safely assume that I’d follow a Katharine Hepburn film into the darkest of dangerous caves without any knowledge of its details. I guess I’m just as guilty of judging something by its wrapper, but if the wrapper has her name on it — let alone hers next to Mr. Spencer Tracy’s — I form an opinion immediately, without even opening the case. You see where I’m going with this, perhaps a little bit?

When Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner opens with the song The Glory of Love, I already have a smile on my face. The song reminds me instantly of Beaches (1988) and the unparalleled love I have for one Miss Bette Midler (visit my “About the Author” page for more on this lifelong obsession). In 1967 San Francisco, Joanna Drayton (played by Miss Hepburn’s niece, Katharine Houghton) returns home to her parents, Hepburn and Tracy’s Christina and Matthew, with her new fiancé John, played by a handsome Sidney Poitier. For those who recognize the name but cannot picture a face, Mr. Poitier is black, and every time his character is liberally referred to as “a negro,” I can’t help but wonder if “black” will some day be incorrect, politically speaking. My love of old movies reflects my personality a great deal, so it’s possible that I haven’t kept up with the times . . . if I’m so far out of the politically correct loop already and offending you, dear readers, you’ll let me know, I’m sure. Matthew and Christina’s liberalism does not result in the initial reaction they may have expected — Christina, although politely shocked at the beginning, comes around to the realization we expect rather quickly, while Matthew Drayton is not as easily convinced. Adding fuel to the simmering fire, Joanna invites John’s parents to dinner, who are unaware of Joanna’s lighter skin tone, and a fairly predictable storyline continues. A wonderful added bonus is the unforgettable voice of the family’s maid, played by Isabell Sanford who dropped that second “L” before landing her Emmy-winning role on The Jeffersons via All in the Family.

The predictability of the plot falls by the wayside for me, shadowed almost completely by the final journey Katharine Hepburn takes here with Mr. Spencer Tracy. The film’s sociopolitical messages have been discussed at length by many who know a great deal more than I about sociology, psychology, political science, and all those other subjects that I could never master in the schoolhouse. I could talk about the frequently used phrase “turmoil of the 60s,” about where I think now society is (or is not), and of course an easy route to take would be to draw a line from this film to the election of President Obama. But there was this odd contradiction that rose up in my pen when those thoughts first entered my mind — on one hand, I say there are others who are more qualified than I to address all those topics and more, and that’s true; but on the other hand, it seems like taking those routes while discussing this movie is just too easy . . . from all the voices I say, welcome to my brain!

While far from inconsiderable, the above mentioned topics (that are indeed part of what made the film as powerful as it was) do not even come close to affecting me as much as the moments when Hepburn glances at Tracy, knowing it may be for the last time. Spencer Tracy’s health was very poor in the late 1960s, and the insurance companies refused to cover him before and during the picture. At a very young age I learned that if I wanted to avoid an angry rant at the dinner table, I shouldn’t say the words “insurance companies” in front of Dad . . . but he was right, and here’s one more example of their wicked ways. Katharine Hepburn and director Stanley Kramer put their salaries in escrow as collateral, agreeing not to take a penny so their money could be used to make the film with another actor if necessary. Luckily for us all, Mr. Tracy made it all the way through filming by working half days, giving a performance of which only he was capable. If I were prone to gambling, I’d lay money on the possibility that his final ten-minute monologue was shot in one or two takes. And then on June 10, 1967, just ten days after filming was complete, the great Mr. Spencer Tracy died. He was 67 years old and wore a Fedora better than any other man on the planet.

Hepburn and Tracy sparkle once again, creating a scene simply by looking at one another. Who knows how they defined “love,” or how many definitions they had, or even if they defined it all, but what they shared with a grateful audience are some of the final loving moments between one of Hollywood’s greatest  non-couples. The tears Miss Hepburn fails to hide during Spencer Tracy’s final monologue are some of the most authentic tears ever to saturate the screen, resulting in her second of four Oscars for Best Actress in a Leading Role. Mr. Tracy convinces us easily of the strong love that his character feels for his wife, and when he glances over at her, I almost feel like I’m intruding. It’s wonderfully heartbreaking when he assures us all that the “memories are still there — clear, intact, indestructible. And they’ll be there if I live to be 110.”

But the one moment that touches me more than any other in the film does indeed fill me with tears, but those tears result from the belly laugh that has me practically rolling around on the floor. When Matt confides in a friend about his daughter’s situation and the frustration he feels about his wife’s reactions to it, Mr. Tracy does the unthinkable — he does an imitation of Katharine Hepburn. Providing a hypothetical in which his daughter comes home with an undesirable fiancé of a different shade, Matt is positive that his wife would ask “where will we get enough roses to fill the Rose Bowl?” From the hard “R’s” to the soft and gentle landing on the “L” of “bowl,” it was only Mr. Spencer Tracy who could provide such an imitation of Miss Hepburn . . . an imitation filled with annoyance, love, and devotion.

So if you ask me (which some lovely people actually did), of course Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner holds up after all these years — the world has gone too far when it decides that Hepburn and Tracy are no longer in style . . .

Academy Awards for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1968): Best Actress in a Leading Role, and Best Writing, Story and Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen

Add it to your queue.