Sunday read: Chadwick Boseman, hero

For many people, Chadwick Boseman was more than an actor. He was a hero.

That was particularly true in the Black community, my friend Lisa Respers France writes.

Some of that was due to his role as T’Challa, the King of Wakanda, in “Black Panther,” she writes in an essay, “Chadwick Boseman gave us the superhero we so desperately needed.” It’s my Sunday read.

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Chadwick Boseman, 1976-2020

Image from AP via Indian Express.

When I saw the news last night that Chadwick Boseman had died, I thought it had to be a hoax. Someone had given the Associated Press a faulty tip. Boseman’s Twitter account had been hacked.

No.

It was true. Boseman had been dealing with colon cancer for four years, and yesterday he finally succumbed. He was 43.

There are some actors that bring both chops and dignity, a certain rectitude, to their performances, no matter the character. Gregory Peck comes to mind; Tom Hanks, for all his attempts to try different things, is another.

Boseman had the same ability. It’s no wonder; originally he wanted to write and direct, so he had a multifaceted perspective of what characters require while still giving them humanity. (His degree, from Howard, was in directing.)

But in some ways it’s a shame that he’s being justly celebrated for his performances as Great Men, including Jackie Robinson, Thurgood Marshall and T’Challa/Black Panther, because doing so ignores his range. For all the attention those performances have received, for my money his best performance is that of James Brown in “Get On Up,” because James Brown is nothing if not a complicated figure, and Boseman managed to capture both his wildly changing moods as well as the man’s amazing performing abilities.

Often, Boseman elevated the rather sober biographies he starred in. Movies like “42” and “Marshall” can suffer from stuffy scripts and direction, and it’s up to the actors to show that the characters are human beings, not plaster saints. Boseman did that routinely; he was truly a talented man.

It’s wonderful that audiences finally got a chance to see his talents in a blockbuster like “Black Panther.” (I’m one of those idiots who wishes that good superhero movies like “Black Panther” had less CGI and more scenes between folks like Boseman and Michael B. Jordan.)

It’s a tragedy that we’ll never see what he could have created. Spike Lee tapped into a more complex Boseman, who played squad leader Stormin’ Norman in “Da 5 Bloods,” and the actor recently completed a production of August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” directed by George C. Wolfe.

Amazingly, he did this work while getting treatment for the cancer. Even more amazingly, he (and his loved ones and, I assume, some castmates) kept his illness quiet. Kudos to them for being private in our voracious, undignified world.

You’ll be missed, Chadwick Boseman.

And 2020, I’ll just say again: Fuck you.

Whose bass line is it, anyway?

If you don’t watch out, a 10-second search on the Internet can turn into an hour-long trip down the rabbit hole. That’s what happened to me yesterday when I was checking the name of a character on “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.”

One link led to a story that said that Carol Kaye — the obvious basis for “Maisel’s” touring bass player Carole Keen — didn’t like the character’s portrayal. (OK, Kaye was stronger: She called it “kind of like slander.”) But the story also noted that Kaye had been the bassist on a number of Motown hits, including Diana Ross’ version of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”

Whoa, I thought. Carol Kaye played on “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”? She played on Motown songs? I thought that work was done by James Jamerson, or maybe Bob Babbitt.

And down the rabbit hole I went.

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Belated Movie Review: ‘Marriage Story’

“Belated Movie Review” is an occasional feature in which I review a movie that everybody else has already seen.

There’s a scene in “Marriage Story” – if you’ve seen the movie, which of course you have, you know which one I’m talking about – in which Adam Driver’s and Scarlett Johansson’s characters begin a civil conversation which escalates into a raging argument. Everything comes out – betrayal, regret, searing pain, ferocious anger – until Driver’s Charlie Barber is collapsed on the floor, crying uncontrollably, comforted by his soon-to-be ex-wife.

In this era of awards-season minutia, in which odd makeup (Nicole Kidman) or renderings of disability (Eddie Redmayne) are seen as nomination fodder, normally I would have dismissed this scene as cynical Oscar bait: a showy display of full-on emotion like Mark Ruffalo’s howl in “Spotlight” (the one false note in that brilliantly deliberate movie). But Driver and Johansson are so honest, so raw, that the scene works. It is earned.

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Sunday read: The soul of the party

Image from Reuters via Politico.

A few days ago, I ordered Kurt Andersen’s latest book, “Evil Geniuses,” about the wealthy groups that steered the Republican Party away from its Main Street, mildly libertarian outlook and into its anti-government, anti-science, anti-immigrant, ferociously pro-gun/fundamentalist religious absolutism. I may have to hold off reading it for awhile, because I’m not in the mood for horror stories right now.

Still, I’m reminded of the politician who helped make it all possible. No, not Barry Goldwater or Ronald Reagan, though they played major roles. (Charles P. Pierce is fond of talking about the “prion disease” that’s been eating away at the GOP since Reagan started feeding the faithful “monkey brains.”)

I’m thinking of Newton Leroy Gingrich. How the former Georgia representative, short-lived House Speaker and current husband to the Ambassador to the Vatican (God loves His little jokes) managed to rip the fabric of America into tiny little angry pieces is the subject of my Sunday read, McKay Coppins’ Atlantic article, “The Man Who Broke Politics.”

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A lesson from New Zealand

Image of Jacinda Ardern from Getty via time.com.

Recently, after more than three months without a Covid-19 case, New Zealand got hit with a new outbreak two weeks ago. It’s a sobering reminder that Covid remains a challenge to control — New Zealand is still trying to figure out how the disease managed to re-emerge given the country’s precautions — and even after a vaccine is approved, nations and municipalities will have to remain on alert.

Nonetheless, the country of 5 million has done an excellent job of keeping Covid in check. Aside from its status as an island nation, giving it some built-in defenses, it clamped own hard with quarantines and testing. Even now, after the new outbreak, the country has tallied 1,665 total cases and just 22 deaths, a fraction of the rate suffered by others.

Still, there always has to be someone sneering “nyaah, nyaah, nyaah” in the back of the classroom. Could it be the classless man who has presided over 5.6 million cases and almost 170,000 deaths — almost one-quarter of the world’s fatalities?

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Review: ‘The Mirror & the Light’ by Hilary Mantel

The Mirror & the Light by Hilary Mantel

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I finished “The Mirror & the Light,” the conclusion to Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy, about two months ago, but I’ve been intimidated by the prospect of reviewing it. How you review a book that is so brilliantly written –Mantel’s rich, creamy prose is something to savor – and obviously so well researched?

I mean, I actually had to look up some of the delightfully archaic words she drops in. I wish I’d dog-eared the pages so I could list them for you, but trust me, they’re the kinds of words you’ll find in good crossword puzzles.

And yet, I plunge ahead with this review in my middling 21st-century vernacular.

“Plunge” is probably the right word; when you put away “The Mirror & the Light” for the evening, as I did most nights over the course of two months, you feel like you’re coming up for air. Mantel creates a distinct, self-contained world with so many characters you find yourself looking at the helpful cast listing she provides at the outset (or digging into Wiki to see how history judged some of them), and yet her Cromwell feels very contemporary: a cynical, pragmatic lawyer who’s always one step ahead of his rivals and his king, Henry VIII. It is not for him to judge Henry’s capricious romances, casual cruelty, or rapacious eating habits; he’s just trying to keep money in the royal till, protect his own kin, and make sure his neck stays a safe distance away from the executioner’s blade.

It is no spoiler to tell you he does not succeed in the last, and if I’m reading Mantel correctly, it’s for the most Greek of reasons: hubris, crossed with a bit of politics. (I’d call the politics Shakespearean, but the Bard won’t be born until almost a quarter-century after Cromwell’s death. Perhaps Machiavellian? If I recall, the Medici aide’s book makes a cameo in Mantel’s work.)

“The Mirror & the Light” begins just after the second book, “Bring Up the Bodies,” ends, with the death of Anne Boleyn. Henry wants yet another wife, and this time she’d better produce a male heir. He gets his wish in the form of Jane Seymour, but after giving birth to the future Edward VI, Jane dies, and Henry is bereft – or at least wanting companionship – again.

Meanwhile, in rising from a brewer’s abused child to Henry’s right hand, Cromwell – Chancellor of the Exchequer, Principal Secretary, and Lord Privy Seal – has made a lot of enemies. However, as long as Henry’s happy, his enemies have no way of removing him from his elevated position.

With Jane Seymour’s death, Cromwell maneuvers to get Anne of Cleves, a German royal, into Henry’s palace. It seems like a good idea: The marriage will bond Henry with German Protestants and keep the French Catholics at bay. But when Anne is finally brought over to London, she is not to Henry’s liking (and vice versa). The marriage is never consummated.

Cromwell gets the blame, and his enemies heighten the king’s paranoia and fuel rumors about disloyalty. The worst blow comes from the trusted Thomas “Call-Me” Wriothesley (pronounced “Riz-lee”), who – having learned lessons in cunning from the master – decides to stab him in the back. So much for avoiding the king’s wrath, and its penalty.

It’s a rich tapestry, and Mantel takes her time weaving it. But, for me, therein lies the book’s flaw; it’s a bit flabby where “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies” were tight. Though it has some wrenching set pieces (the last 50 pages, in which Cromwell is tried and executed, is absolutely dazzling), “The Mirror & the Light” contains too many long, empty stretches to be ranked on the same level as the other two novels. It reminded me of those 800-page biographies in which the biographer feels the need to list absolutely everything she uncovered about her subject — wearying in a biography, and just as wearying in fiction. I occasionally took breaks to read brisker fare.

Nevertheless, even with an overstretched finale, the trilogy is a remarkable achievement. Cromwell is such a fascinating character, a man ahead of his time in so many ways.

His depiction isn’t the only thing with contemporary echoes; I was struck by Mantel’s description of a plague that made its way through 1530s London:

The king had talked of a ceremony at midsummer. But now there are rumours of plague and sweating sickness. It is not wise to allow crowds in the street, or pack bodies into indoor spaces. The Seymours, of course, urge the king to take the risk.

The Seymours would fit right into the current U.S. administration. One wishes there were a Thomas Cromwell around to take them on.

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What I’ve learned from completing the first chapter of my novel

Image from Getty via iStockPhoto.com. Incidentally, if you unscramble those letters, you get the first page of my novel.

For years, people have asked me, “Todd, when are you going to write your novel?” And for years I’ve put them off. “Someday,” I say, or think, or imagine, or despair.

Someday.

(They’ve also asked me, “Todd, will you please stop boring me with your stupid trivia?” Not yet, I say, not yet. Hah!)

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Sunday read: The greatest horse in the world

From aboard Secretariat, jockey Ron Turcotte looks back at his competition. Photo by Bettman/Corbis via Sportsnet.ca.

I have a book and CD that compiles some of the greatest announcing calls in sports history: “Havlicek stole the ball,” “I don’t believe what I just saw,” and others in that vein.

This morning my iDevice cued up one of my favorites: “He is moving like a tremendous machine.”

That’s Chic Anderson’s call at the 1973 Belmont Stakes, which Secretariat won by an inconceivable 31 lengths. I dare you to watch that video without getting choked up; it’s one of the great sports performances of modern times, and I won’t listen if you say, “Well, it’s just a horse.”

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A bad case of school stomach

Image via Child Mind Institute.

Remember that nervous feeling you got before an important test in school? Your insides would turn to water and your mind would go blank. Perhaps you took some deep breaths in the hope of calming down … but, in general, that feeling of unpreparedness and anxiety didn’t go away until after the test was over.

My wife calls it “school stomach.”

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