Kickstarter, AirBnB, and trust in your fellow man (even strangers)

I’ve been thinking about Kickstarter and AirBnB a lot lately because of Cory Tschogl, a California woman who rented out her Palm Springs condo to two brothers for 44 days. The situation quickly devolved into a squatting nightmare after the two guys refused to pay off the full balance of their fare, and what’s worse, refused to leave her apartment. Because the men were renting for at least 30 days, they are tenants and have rights, meaning that it will take months and lots of money for Tschogl to get the guys out of her condominium.

The guy who made the reservation is reportedly Maksym Pashanin, a successful Kickstarter fundraiser who managed to accrue $40,000 to finance a game he was creating. According to some reports, not only has Pashanin conned Tschogl, but his financial backers as well.

Both Kickstarter and AirBnB are services that rely a lot on trust. AirBnB provides a great service for budget travlers – I myself have used it a few times, and have always had good experiences, but then again, I’ve always been the guest, never the host. Some who have opened up their homes to make a bit of extra money have had their homes left in shambles.

A  Hyattsville Maryland man found his house a wreck, with “liquor bottles and cigar wrappers inside and outside of his home,” even finding lingerie in his rooms. A New Yorker rented her East Village penthouse only to come back and find it trashed with “human feces, used condoms and other disgusting things all over her bathroom and furniture.” A blogger recounted a horror story of a renter ransacking her place, stealing valuable items and destroying furniture.

These instances are very rare, and AirBnB has reached out to their clients working with them to figure out what to do. Similarly, Kickstarter also has a good record, but with some spotty moments that call crowdsourcing into question. One of the most infamous cases of a Kickstarter problem is popular web comic artist John Campbell who famously burned 127 copies of his Kickstarter funded book after failing to ship them to his backers. In another highly-publicized example, New York University student Matias Shimada used his Kickstarter funds to inadvertently plagiarize a film for a student movie contest.

These examples, while very rare, all make using Kickstarter and AirBnb a frightening prospect. But for most, they’re an invaluable resource. But aside from all the legalese the sites used to cover themselves, there is a reliance on trust involved when one is using either site.

When I traveled to Lake Geneva a few years ago, I made a reservation through AirBnB, agreeing to stay in a stranger’s home for a weekend. We drove all the way to the resort town hoping that (a) we weren’t hosed by some scam artist and would be homeless for two days and (b) the beautiful cottage we were promised would end up being some awful shack. While not scared, we did talk about how we were essentially trusting a woman we didn’t know in a town far away from our homes. In the end, it was better than fine, and we ended up having a great time (and I must say, we were the consummate guests – I even sent her a copy of Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Delight after our host mentioned she was a fan of his).

But despite the inherent nowness of the two services, there is also something quite quaint about the idea behind Kickstarter and AirBnB, harking back to that mythical time when people were more open and trusting of each other. Despite its contemporary trappings, there is an old-fashioned ethos behind these sites: a community comes together to support a struggling artist, or a kindly landlady rents out a room to a boarder. It’s practically a setting for a Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney movie.

But unfortunately, life isn’t Andy Hardy and the suspension of cynicism is difficult, even if instances like the ones reported are exceedingly rare. And as unlikely as these episodes are, they do highlight the growing need for vigilance when using the Internet and when dealing with people – especially when money, safety, and property are concerned.

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Why the Department of Education has it wrong to allow discrimination against trans students

Religious freedom is one of the most important rights in this country – to many, it’s what this country was founded on (never mind that this country was also founded on the oppression of other people’s spirituality, but that’s for another post). I believe that religious freedom should be honored and valued and protected. But when I say religious freedom, I mean religious freedom of individuals, not corporations, companies, schools, or organizational bodies.

The Federal Department of Education promised that trans students would be protected under law, particularly Title IX – the controversy erupted over trans students using bathrooms and showers. In rulings, schools were ordered to implement policy that would ensure that trans students do not feel any different or excluded than their cis counterparts. Good on you, Federal Department of Education.

Except not so fast: in three separate rulings, religious universities appealed to the Department of Education for exemption of the anti-sex discrimination rule and the requests were granted. Spring Arbor University in Michigan and Simpson University in California both want to be able to expel trans students because of the universities’ strong and “sincere” religious convictions, while George Fox University in Oregon was allowed to deny a trans male student housing in the male dorms for the same reasons.

The Feds argued that they had no other option but to grant these universities the right to discriminate because of their right to religious freedom. Now, let me make this clear – no one’s religious freedom has been threatened by the trans students – the Federal Government wasn’t threatening to make these colleges pro trans, nor were they even stepping in to change the schools’ policies on LGBT matters, but the schools and the government felt it was appropriate to grant individual freedoms and rights to institutions.

And that’s a problem.

Some will point out that lots of pro-gay companies and organizations have fired employees who have embraced anti-gay opinions – why is this any different? Others also point out that these universities are private institutions and should be able to dictate their own policies regarding their student bodies.

There are problems with these arguments.

They’re either short-sighted or they’re willfully obtuse: let’s be clear, we’re not talking about religious freedom, we’re talking about a specific kind of religions freedom; If Muslim institutions or less established faith-based colleges started asserting their more arcane and discriminatory dogma, I’m not as sure if the Feds or the Right would be so quick to defend. But the concern is if we allow for religious institutions that get Federal funding to enact discriminatory policy, what is stopping other institutions from following? And the problem with allowing for religious freedoms of an institution (vs. an individual’s right to religious freedom) is where will it end? We cannot know every religion or faith that is being practiced in this country. And what about cults? Are they also allowed to enact wacky policy simply because they have a “sincere” belief. Will child marriage be okay, now that we know that certain laws can be overrode because of religious belief?

I don’t have a problem with private entities being discriminatory as long as they don’t break the laws of their districts, counties, states, or any Federal laws. We have lots of examples of churches that preach anti-LGBT hate, and not only are they protected by the First Amendment, but many also reap many tax benefits because of their status and donations to churches are tax-exempt. And the schools I mentioned, along with many other religious institutions receive federal funding – tax money – that LGBT folks pay part of, so that these three schools can enjoy the privilege of discriminating against their students. If we are really committed to the idea of church and state (and I’m seeing evidence that we may not be), then these schools should be allowed to discriminate, but they should also lose Federal funding, and rely solely on personal donations that would not be tax-exempt.

Another argument I hearing/seeing comes from the left and from the LGBT community – these kids knew what kinds of schools they were applying to, why would any trans person in his/her right mind want to go to a school like that? Personally, I agree – I wouldn’t want to give a school like George Fox University money or my potential, but that’s me. And we on the left also like to forget that there are members in our community that are very religious, too. Being trans doesn’t make one automatically an atheist – it doesn’t even make someone automatically a liberal. It’s not our place to question the decisions trans people make in their education. That’s their business. Our business to advocate whenever we see some kind of injustice.

The Hobby Lobby won a judgment allowing it to deny birth control as part of its health insurance benefits for its employees. Again, the justification was religious. Like with the judgments allowing these schools to discriminate against their trans students, we only see a certain kind of fundamentalist Christian faith at play here. I’d love to see what will happen when conservative Muslim, Jewish, or Buddhist institutions begin to apply to the government for various privileges due to religious exemptions. It will be interested to see if those on the right who are vocally defending these practices will be as on board for that.

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Boy George tells his story as well as recounts the history of the New Romantic scene in ‘Take It Like a Man’

Product DetailsBoy George is one of the most enduring figures of the 1980s. His flamboyant, gender nonconforming image, complete with makeup, bowler hat, and dreds made him into a pop icon. Unfortunately, his talent as a solid songwriter and soulful singer has often been overshadowed by his rapier wit and larger-than-life public persona. At his height, when a member of the New Wave band Culture Club, Boy George’s cheery drag look coupled with his bouncy, friendly pop music made him a favorite among a large swath of the record buying public: teenagers, punks, goths, and their grandmothers all listened to Boy George’s plaintive croon. Like RuPaul, Boy George was a family-friendly version of drag, one that challenged gender norms superficially. But was simmered underneath the cartoon-like image was a struggling, angst-ridden artist who was plagued with  a doomed and violent love affair as well as feelings of self-doubt and self-loathing. In his 1995 memoir Take It Like a Man (released to coincide with the release of his 1995 album Cheapness and Beauty, Boy George tells a bracing and thrilling tale of pop stardom, celebrity, gay culture, drug addiction, and he shares his first hand account of the rise and fall of the New Romantic scene as well as the UK punk subculture. He does all this with a witty, arch sense of humor that will remind some of Andy Warhol (who makes an appearance in the book).

Boy George (born George O’Dowd) was born in Kent to Irish parents and was part of a large family. He writes of growing up, feeling different, and out of sorts with the largely working class environment of his childhood. David Bowie and Marc Bolan are two figures who loom large in his early development as an artist. It’s during the chapters that cover his childhood and adolescence that the book paints a poignant picture of a young man struggling with his sexuality in a hostile environment. Being gay was rough and he had few people to turn to. He also writes of early experiences of his sexuality. These stories are written with a clear-eye, without undue sentiment or mawkishness, nor does the author mire in self-pity.

The most infamous chapters will deal with the singer’s brushes with fame and celebrity as well as his descent into drug addiction. He doesn’t hold back and names names quite freely, telling the whole, unvarnished story. At his peak fame, Boy George found himself sparring with other pop giants like Madonna, Diana Ross, and Dionne Warwick. He also found himself at odds with George Michael, Luther Vandross, and Stevie Wonder, all of whom are painted with rather unflattering colors. It’s when he unloads his prickly wit at other celebrities that Take It Like a Man is at its most fun. Divas like Janet Jackson and Tina Turner are exposed as snobby and rude, while Vandross and Wonder proved to be ungenerous duet partners.

Along with these tales of the rich and famous, Boy George also shows how Culture Club’s poppy, friendly image was merely a farce, hiding a band that quickly splintered because of professional jealousy and a doomed love affair between George and drummer Jon Moss (who couldn’t remain faithful to George, often sleeping around with women). Quickly, Boy George with his outrageous fashion and quick tongue, became the face of Culture Club, much to the consternation of the rest of the band. As the group’s main songwriter and lead singer, he was also its voice. This disparity in attention sowed seeds of resentment and envy, and George’s ego also grew exponentially, creating a nasty environment that quickly caused the band to implode.

After the collapse of Culture Club, Boy George embarked on a spotty solo career, and during this time, he writes frankly and openly of his drug addiction. These passages provide some of the most harrowing reading, as he recounts with disarming candor, of instances of hiding drugs on his person in airports, tripping on heroin, or suffering the physical pains and discomforts of withdrawal. He’s unsparing in his self-examination – he blames no one but himself, and doesn’t sermonize. Instead, he acknowledges his role in his downfall. The depths of George’s pain are sometimes hard to read, as are the reactions of his friends and family. But George uses the same knack for soulful songwriting in writing the book. There is some bitterness – but that’s okay – and there’s a lot of rueful humor.

By the end of the book, we meet Boy George circa 1995. Clean and on a career high because of a top 20 pop hit with “The Crying Game” George was enjoying a renaissance during the book’s release. The ensuing twenty years weren’t quiet – there were arrests – but his career has stabilized, and Culture Club has even reunited a few times (scoring a top 5 hit with “I Just Wanna Be Loved”). For more complete picture of Boy George’s life up to now, readers should seek out his sequel Straight. But  Take It Like a Man is a fascinating and engrossing tale of a talented individual who found himself overwhelmed by fame and fortune, but was lucky (and strong enough) to survive.

Click here to buy Boy George’s Take It Like a Man on amazon.com.

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Cult classics revisted: Renee Taylor & Joseph Bologna’s take on Shakespeare, ‘Love Is All There Is’

William Shakespeare’s classic romantic tragedy Romeo and Juliet has been retold many times on film, most notably in 1961 as a musical with West Side Story, in 1968 with Franco Zeffirelli’s interpretation, and in 1996 with Baz Luhrman’s retelling. In 1996 Renee Taylor and Joseph Bologna (the duo was Oscar nominated for writing Love and Other Strangers) took a stab at the great Bard’s tragic tale of the doomed lovers. In their take, Romeo and Juliet takes place in City Island, New York. The warring families are the Cappamezzas and the Malacicis, dueling caterers who must deal with their children falling in love. An all but forgotten comedy, Love Is All There Is is a minor entry in the Shakespearean filmography, done in by a lot of its mighty flaws.

One thing I noticed after watching Love Is All There Is, is just how much it influenced and predicted Nia Vardalos’ 2002 hit My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Like Vardalos’ script, Taylor and Bologna put together a tale that reveled and depended on ethnic stereotypes, namely Italians and Italian-Americans (specifically New Yorkers). The cast is crammed with character actors all of whom played either Greeks, Italians, Jews, or any combination of the three. Bologna stars with Lainie Kazan as the earthier Capomezzos. Kazan is the soulful and lusty Sadie (does Kazan play any other types of women aside from soulful and lusty?). She’s a superstitious woman who consults the local psychic (a loopy Taylor) to help her dormant sex life. Along with her work, Sadie’s life revolves around her genial son, Rosario (Nathanial Marston). Rosario, the scion to the Capomezzos catering empire, is playing Romeo in a local amateur production of Romeo and Juliet.

Paul Sorvino and Barbara Carrera play the snooty Malacicis, a Florentine couple who muscle in on the Capomezzos catering turf. When the local Juliet breaks her legs in a hapless accident during rehearsal, their lovely daughter Gina (Angelina Jolie, in an early role) steps in and soon Rosario and Gina fall in love. Predictably their union causes much pain and drama among their parents, who see the union as treacherous to their respective families.

Surprisingly faithful to Shakespeare’s work, if one is familiar with Romeo and Juliet, the the plot will be easy to predict. And even if one has been able to avoid the plot of Romeo and Juliet, rom-coms like Love Is All There Is are pretty easy to figure out: both Gina and Rosario will fall in love, but will face obstacles. And in the end, just as the families of Romeo and Juliet did, the Capomezzos and the Malacicis learn a lesson about love and tolerance.

Taylor and Bologna are a great duo – funny and talented, but they’re not the most skillful screenwriters. The skeleton of the script is good, but the duo would benefit from a strong script doctor to reign in the Borscht belt impulses of the couple. It’s easy to see that the film was supposed to be a Woody Allen-lite, Moonstruck type of film, but it got lost along the way in the explosive gaudiness of the film.

And poor Lainie Kazan. Kitted in her standard uniform of clashing colors and warring patterns, she plays Sadie Capomezzo like she plays every other character she’s ever played. It’s a shame because though she’s a limited actress, she’s an appealing comedienne, and her presence does manage to scratch through some of the hoary cliches and stereotypes that Taylor and Bologna fling at their cast. In her quieter moments, Kazan shows she’s up to the challenge of being subtle (or at least subtler), especially when she has a heart-to-heart with a parish priest about her fears of losing her identity once her smothered son leaves the nest.

The boisterous cast also includes a pre-View Joy Behar as a family friend, Abe Vigoda, Dick Van Patton, Connie Stevens, and William Hickey. Any direction from Taylor and Bologna seems minimal, as in it feels sometimes as if they just pointed a camera at the actors and shouted, “Go bigger! Be louder!” It’s Sorvino who gives the most memorable performance (faint praise, though) – his daffy, blustery turn feels improvised a lot of the time, especially when his Piero Malacici struggles with his English and his tortured American idioms (it almost feels as if he stepped out of a Christopher Guest film and wandered onto the set of The Nanny).

And Jolie? The sole actor in this group that would reach superstardom? How does she play the ingenue? She’s decent. The actress struggles with her Italian accent, and the script demands an elasticity of the character that Jolie couldn’t successfully sell. Initially a doe-eyed gamine, she turns into a harsh-voiced harridan, before devolving into a blubbering mess. It feels as if the producers knew that Jolie had star power because she got special billing (“and introducing Angeline Jolie”) but little of her performance her warrants any predictions of megastardom.

Love Is All There Is is the last writing credit for Taylor, who would go on to greater fame and acclaim as a scene-stealing character actress (a highlight was her Emmy-nominated work as Fran Drescher’s mom on The Nanny). Bologna as a screenwriter has been dormant for a long time, only now soon to release a new film Tango Shalom which will reunite him with Kazan. It’s not a big mystery why both writers haven’t been prolific – Love Is All There Is is largely forgotten, only a minor footnote, an interest only because of its early appearance of Jolie. I won’t go as far as saying that it’s a hidden classic – it’s far too ridiculous – but it does deserve some viewing, particularly on a Sunday afternoon on a basic cable channel.

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Cult classics revisited: ‘Nuts’

Nuts is a 1987 drama based on Tom Topor’s play, which tells the story of a prostitute named Claudia Draper who kills a john in self-defense and then has to defend herself in a competency hearing. The film was directed by Martin Ritt (Norma Rae), and starred Barbra Streisand, Eli Wallach, Maureen Stapleton, Richard Dreyfuss, and Karl Malden, with Leslie Nielsen in a cameo. The film was a rarity for Streisand in that it was one of the few movies in which she tried giving a performance, free from all the schtick and schmaltz that usually marred her work. It was also the last genuine bit of acting she would ever do in her storied career.

What I found interesting about Nuts is just how dated and 80s it feels – not because of the fashions but because of the genre (court dramas were all the rage in the 80s) and because of the film’s status as a Barbra Streisand vehicle. I would argue that the 1980s was the last decade that produced the classic “female movie star vehicle.” I’m not saying we don’t have female movie stars now – Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Julia Roberts, and Meryl Streep are all still bankable – but in the 1980s, there was still a strange archaic trend to use a female superstar as the tent pole of a film. Think about it: Kathleen Turner, Melanie Griffith, Jessica Lange, Sally Field, Cher, Goldie Hawn – all these actresses would be handpicked for their talent, star power, and beauty, and would have a film essentially created around their performances. Since the 1990s, few female stars have deemed bankable enough to green light a project – Julia Roberts, Cameron Diaz, and Reese Witherspoon come to mind – but we haven’t had an across-the-board female movie star in a little bit. So that Nuts acts as a showcase for Streisand’s acting talents is just one of the few aspects of the film that date it.

Nuts is a reasonably gritty film that explores misogyny, perceptions of sanity, as well as moral relativism. Topor’s screenplay (written with Darryl Ponicsan and Alvin Sargent) asks a lot of questions through its protagonist, Claudia. There are people around Claudia: her lawyer, her parents, her doctors – all of whom want to conveniently want her declared mentally incompetent when she kills a murderous john (Nielsen) is self-defense. Because she’s an intelligent woman, she understands that she may avoid a criminal sentence, but instead she may be locked away in a mental institution. Rightly, she sees this as unfair because she was acting in self-defense, a very normal, sane, reaction to having a man try to kill you.

Part of her detractors’ arguments lay in her chosen profession: she must be nuts to be a hooker. Topor wisely examines class distinction and race when he approaches these arguments. As Claudia herself sneers sarcastically, hookers aren’t “nice white girls from nice white families.” Because a seemingly intelligent, self-possessed, white woman like Claudia turns to prostitution, it stands to reason to her doctors, that she must be nuts. During her address to the court, she brings up the relative nature of prostitution, by pointing to married women whose lives and choices aren’t that different from her own. In the speech, delivered by Streisand with bravura and passion, Claudia points out:

“I know what you expect me to do…But I’m not a picture in your heads…do you understand? I’m not just a daughter, or a wife or a hooker or a patient or a defendant. Can’t you get that? You think giving blowjobs for $500 is nuts…I know women who marry men they despise so they can drive a Mercedes and spend summers in the Hamptons. I know women who crawl through shit for a fur coat. I know women who peddle their daughters to hang on to their husbands. So don’t judge my blowjobs, they’re sane. I know what I was doing every goddamned minute and I’m responsible for it.”

It’s a well-written speech that lets the readers know just how punny the title is. What is nuts? Why do we judge certain people to be crazy, when if one looks at it, a lot of “normal” behavior is strange, when examined objectively. One of the taglines for the film reads, “Mad as in angry, or just plain nuts.” Topor creates a character that stands in for the repudiation of societal expectations of decency and normalcy. And the viewers are asked to turn off their own expectations, because, as seen in Claudia’s case, these rigid rules have real world consequences.

And all of this is done with severe sincerity by the cast, the writers, and the director, all of whom step it up, putting together a very serious film. It’s not necessarily an excellent film, or even a very good one, but it’s a solid couple hours of choir preaching.

Because the film is based on a stage play, much of the action and dialogue is, well, stagey. People in Nuts don’t just speak naturally, but they also give rousing speeches, often to explain plot points or to highlight context. When delivering her defense speech, Streisand the star blends in with Claudia the character – and it’s difficult to see if Streisand’s performing or if she’s merely grandstanding. These are one of the few instances in the film when the script works against its star. The quieter moments with Streisand gently sparring with Dreyfuss as her crusading attorney, Aaron Levinsky, are much better, and show off the actress as the talented craftswoman. But too often, Streisand is supposedly gifted with monologues, during which she paces back and forth. as if she was holding court on a stage in Madison Square Garden.

Aside from Streisand, the other actors in the film represent the then-surviving members of the Actors Studio. Maureen Stapleton, Eli Wallach, and Karl Malden were disciples of the Method and are predictably excellent, disappearing in their roles in a way that Streisand couldn’t (the “curse” of being a superstar). Dreyfuss, a star equal to Streisand’s star power, also is more powerful in his performance than his leading lady. As the bedraggled and overworked lawyer who takes on Claudia’s case, Dreyfus plays the altruistic weariness beautifully. And interestingly enough, Malden and Nielsen, both actors primarily known as playing genial gentlemen, do very well subverting their affable screen personas and portray men with dark and sinister tones.

But unfortunately, the success of the film rests on Streisand’s shoulders and despite her yeoman efforts, she ultimately fails in successfully portraying the caged-in paranoia of Claudia. When she’s called on to act extravagantly crazy, Streisand pops her eyes, flails, and shouts her lines in tough girl speak that feels hollow. And it’s not that she’s terrible in the film – in fact, she’s very good, but viewers can always see when Streisand is acting. Her internal acting gears are visible when the script calls for high drama. And as mentioned earlier, when Streisand gets to calm down, the film’s tone shifts, and there are momentary peeks of just how much stronger her performance would’ve been if she was allowed to remain subtle. As it is, in Nuts, Streisand’s acting prowess isn’t elastic enough to stand up to the script’s roller coaster of emotions.

Nuts is an interesting entry in Streisand’s oeuvre: it is, to date, her last drama, and the last time when she tried valiantly to hang up her diva persona and get inside of her character. In the handful of movies that followed, Streisand’s roles have been little more than just highlights of various facets of her onscreen persona (with the possible exception of the little-seen Seth Rogen comedy The Guilt Trip). The movie feels a bit sleepy, weighed down by its good intentions, but is nonetheless worth a view.

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Parenting when poor – unless you can afford childcare, don’t have kids…

Debra Harrell was arrested because she left her 9 year old playing in the park by herself while she was working at a South Carolina McDonald’s. Being in a fix, she left her kid at the park.

I understand the concern people have with a woman leaving her kid by herself at the park, but realistically speaking, instead of arresting the woman (and other parents who have to figure out alternatives to daycare), we should start looking at pushing for subsidized, affordable, or (let’s just say it) free daycare.

Some may grouse, “Don’t have kids if you can’t afford childcare” which essentially means, “Don’t have kids if you’re part of the working poor.” In an ideal world every parent could afford to pay for his children’s food, education, healthcare, and education. But we don’t live in an ideal world. We also live in a world (and a country) where comprehensive family planning is constantly under threat. It’s interesting that some are calling for Harrell’s arrest, when many of those same people would insist that birth control and access to abortion are both immoral.

Others point out that Harrell took an unforgivable risk: leaving her daughter in the park by herself would leave the child vulnerable to kidnappers. Even sympathetic commentators have clucked that it’s no longer the 1950s, when it was safer to leave kids out on their own. Aside from this cockeyed and incorrect nostalgia, we also have to point out that a child has a much better chance of being a victim with a family friend or relative.

Debra Harrell is just the public face of many parents who face agonizing choices when it comes to parenthood. These choices aren’t fair and are onerous. When commenting on the issue, some have said that even if it’s hard, Harrell should’ve just found someone – as if by magic, Mary Poppins would glide in to administer some top-shelf babysitting.

Harrell isn’t a criminal. She’s a victim. Her daughter is, too. They’re victims, along with thousands of other children and parents who are making do, improvising and doing what they can. Harrell’s decision to leave her kid at the park couldn’t have been an easy one, but it’s one that she felt she had to do, to ensure that she could work her shift and provide for her daughter.

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Cult classics revisited: ‘The Mirror Crack’d’ (1980)

Because of PBS, ITV, and Masterpiece Theatre, Agatha Christie stories have long become exclusive to television. But there was a time years ago, when her books enjoyed big screen adaptations. The biggest hit was of course the Academy Award winning Sidney Lumet classic, Murder on the Orient Express (1974). Because of the success of the film, other Christie thrillers were made into films, copying Lumet’s all-star approach. Unfortunately, each successive film saw diminishing returns and before long, Christie’s creations were relegated to TV.

The Mirror Crack’d is an interesting entry in the Christie filmography because it featured Miss Jane Marple, not Hercule Poirot. The joy of watching Poirot is his dashing adventures. As a professional detective, he sparred with hostile police officers and traveled to exotic locales. Miss Marple was largely confined to the cozy confines of her little village, St. Mary Mead. Also, Miss Marple was a very unassuming character. Instead of being boastful and eccentric, she was slightly dotty and self-effacing (that is until Joan Hickson, Geraldine McEwan, and Julia McKenzie took on the role).

In Guy Hamilton’s 1980 adaptation of The Mirror Crack’d (the title referring to a line in Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott”), we have an interesting take on the story – a campier take on Agatha Christie. The director assembled a hugely starry cast: Elizabeth Taylor, Kim Novak, Rock Hudson, Tony Curtis, Geraldine Chaplin, Edward Fox, and as Miss Marple, future TV detective Angela Lansbury.

Before I go on, I have to comment a bit on Lansbury. Because of Murder, She Wrote, she would seem like a perfect fit for Miss Marple. She would be. Now. In 1980, the actress was only 55 years old – a good 20 years too young. The aging makeup was rather unflattering and not terribly convincing. There are peaks of Jessica Fletcher, but one only feels Lansbury is good for the role because of hindsight. Normally a brilliant actress, in The Mirror Crack’d, Lansbury has a hell of a time working against her miscasting, and ultimately, she doesn’t succeed, which is a shame.

But aside from the miscasting of Lansbury, The Mirror Crack’d benefits from the other stars – namely Elizabeth Taylor and Kim Novak. They play actresses who are nursing a healthy rivalry. They trade insults and bitchy quips that sound like vintage Joan Collins/Linda Evans duels in Dynasty. Obviously, a large bulk of their sniping deals with age, weight, and beauty. Both Novak and Taylor are heralded as great beauties, and inform their respective roles with that history.

In the film, Novak has maintained much of the looks she had at her peak. She’s outfitted in slim-fitting suits that push up her bust. Taylor, while still beautiful, has become slightly matronly due to her well-publicized issue with weight and food. Novak, always a limited actress, does well with the two-dimensional role, allowing for primping and preening.

Taylor’s performance is more interesting because she shows a good, healthy sense of humor about herself. By the 1980s, Taylor’s image shifted from the glamorpuss of the 1950s, to the extravagantly loud and brassy celebrity. She injects a slight coarseness into her acting, laughing louder and screeching more shrilly than everyone else. A very underrated actress, Taylor also gets a chance to show off hidden comic talents with some great one liners.

The plot is a predictably convoluted affair. St. Mary Mead is the improbable location for a film shoot about Queen Elizabeth I, and Taylor’s Marina Rudd is even more improbably cast as the Virgin Queen. Novak’s Lola Brewster is starring as Mary, Queen of Scots. Marina is staying in St. Mary Mead with her husband, hack director Jason (Rock Hudson), who is devoted to his tempestuous wife. Also on hand is Marina’s devoted, if resentful, assistant, Ella Zelinsky (Geraldine Chaplin).

During a swanky party, crashed by Lola, a pretty young village girl is poisoned. Because the daiquiri she drank was meant for Marina, it’s quickly established that the famed movie star is in mortal danger. Police Inspector Craddock (Edward Fox) is called to investigate the murder and to figure out who is trying to kill Marina; luckily, he happens to be the nephew of the local amateur sleuth, Miss Marple.

Those familiar with Christie’s book, will know the ending – I’ll leave it be because I don’t want to spoil it. There are tiny clues sprinkled throughout the play, and Hamilton’s good about dropping them without cheating. Unfortunately, there isn’t much suspense in the story, but still The Mirror Crack’d is an enjoyable campy film.

And much of the success of the film is due to the screenwriters: Jonathan Hales and Barry Sandler. Without delving too much into stereotypes, I imagine that a lot of the film’s arch, waspish, bitchy sense of humor is due to openly gay Sandler’s input. There’s something practically Warholian about some of the jabs, as well as, an historic nod to queer cinema. In one memorable scene, Taylor is scrutinizing her face in the mirror, singing “Wrinkles, wrinkles, go away, come back on Doris Day,” which gets a bemused double take from Hudson (Day’s perennial costar in a series of sex comedies in the 1960s).

What’s interesting about Hudson’s contribution to the film, is that he comes off as the most natural. While the other performers mug for the camera, chewing scenery and practically winking at the camera, Hudson gives a nice, warm performance that is understated. Like Novak, he was never a great actor, but he was a great star. But his naturalism and subtle emoting doesn’t fit with the film, and despite his looks and tall stature, he actually starts to blend into the background (it doesn’t help that his wardrobe, oddly, matches the scenery).

If Hudson is too low key, then it has to be said that Tony Curtis’ performance as film producer Martin Fenn could be characterized as near-Kabuki. As if spoon fed on every Jewish stereotype as well as every Hollywood film producer cliche, Curtis’ performance is a jumble of grimaces, hand waves, and sentences punctuated with “bubbe.” It feels as if Curtis’ performance has been inspired by a large oil slick (it’s also strange seeing the actor without his signature pompadour, and he looks not unlike a weird combo of Joe Pesci and Frank Sinatra). If anything does work with Curtis’ work, it’s his clipped, deep voice.

Aside from the cutting dialogue and the hammy acting, another notable aspect of the film is that it begins with a film: elements of the 1931 Frank Strayer potboiler Murder at Midnight opens the film. It’s black and white, and the night sky is illuminated by shards of lightening. The movie-in-the-movie is a classic whodunit, and like every whodunit, a detective assembles the guests in a drawing room to reveal the murderer. Hamilton and his scribes ramp up the corniness of the genre, by having the suspects all act idiosyncratically, with one young lady madly twirling a string of pearls like a demented flapper. Before we’re told who the murderer is, the film cuts off, and we’re suddenly transported to a rec hall at a church, filled with disgruntled villagers, all frustrated at being denied a satisfying conclusion. It’s at this moment that we are introduced to Miss Marple, who stands up, gathers her things and quickly solves the mystery with an air of smugness.  Interestingly enough, because Murder at Midnight only takes about ten minutes (maybe even less), the whodunit cliches are announced to the audience, almost with horn-filled fanfare. Maybe two hours of this would be tiresome, but the ten minutes or so we watched was pretty funny, and strangely enough, was far more compelling then the denouement at the end of The Mirror Crack’d. It doesn’t bode well for a film when its jokey send up, a minor plot point, comes off stronger than the film’s own climax.

Still, at the end of The Mirror Crack’d I have to say, I did enjoy it. It’s clear that it isn’t on par with Murder on the Orient Express, nor is it even on par with its inferior followups (Evil Under the Sun, Appointment with Death, Death on the Nile). I understand that ITV’s Marple is finished – because Angela Lansbury is still in incredible good health, it’d be great if she returned to the role that now would be far more appropriate for her. Miss Marple is a nontraditional heroine – rarely do films revolve around an elderly woman as their central protagonist, so just for that reason The Mirror Crack’d is worth a try.

 

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