James Stewart Did Not Always Play A Nice Guy

From “The Movie Uncyclopedia,” an ebook I had the pleasure of contributing to. In it, our tribe of movie nuts dubunk, explore, offer theories, and otherwise obsess about cinematic matters. Please consider buying it.)


Stewart, James: Mr. Smith Did Not Always Play A Nice Guy

I grew up thinking that Jimmy Stewart was the guy I should be.  Unlike Cary Grant,who was too smooth for me to ever be, Stewart-like humanity seemed achievable.  If we set our hearts and minds to it, any of us could be as good a man as It’s a Wonderful Life‘s George Bailey or the dude from You Can’t Take It With You.  If it turned out we were a bit loony, well, we could aspire to be as lovably loony as the guy who gets chummy with the titular invisible rabbit in Harvey.

But take a look a little deeper in the Stewart cannon and you’ll see that Mr. Nice wasn’t always so nice.

I’m not talking about the way he reams out his kid’s teacher—and her husband—in It’s a Wonderful Life.  Or the way he slugs the newspaper guy in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington or slams Dan Duryea’s head into a saloon counter in Winchester 77.  Or, for that matter, his nutso-kookiness that leads to Kim Novak’s death in Vertigo.

No, I’m talking about After the Thin Man in which Stewart plugs three people in cold blood before (surprise!) Nick and Nora Charles finally peg him for the murders.

Yes, I just ruined After the Thin Man for you. Sue me.



Myers, Mike: Very Good Performances Are Not Always in Very Good Movies


I’m glad Mike brought up Mike Myers in the previous chapter.

I was disappointed, though, that he didn’t say much about my favorite Mike Myers performance. I’m not talking about his turn as the delivery boy in the TV movie John and Yoko: A Love Story.  Stop being silly.  And stop using IMDB.com so much.  You’re not fooling anyone.

No, I’m talking about his performance as disco entrepreneur Steve Rubell in the 1998 film 54.

In it, Myers borders on brilliant. But I still don’t recommend you watch it.  Because the rest of the movie is godawful.

This happens.  And it must be even more frustrating for the actor than it is for us in the audience.  We only devoted two hours and maybe twenty bucks to the thing (thirty if you include popcorn).  They, on the other hand, gave months and even years to the project.  Not only that, while they were putting their all into giving an Oscar-worthy performance, they could have been in a better movie giving an Oscar-worthy performance. One that might actually be nominated for Oscars.

In the case of Myers, the crapitude of the film could easily lead Hollywood power people to believe that nobody wants to see Myers in a dramatic role when the actual message is that nobody wants to see Myers in a dramatic role in a bad, bad movie.

There’s a difference.

Myers, I should make clear, is not alone in this.   Consider one of Marlon Brando’s greatest performances as an oil company chairman in 1980’s The Formula.  It’s no wonder that he was cynical about the movie business.  Here he was creating a fully realized, unique human being while the writer and director were creating dreck.

Or consider the grossly underrated David Paymer as Billy Crystal’s brother in Mr. Saturday Night.  Or the grossly underrated David Paymer in the Speed rip-off Chill Factor.  Or just about anything that David Paymer is in.

I also believe that Sally Field is probably great in Not Without My Daughter.  I just can’t drum up the energy to find out for sure.

Although I would have if Mike Myers were in it.




“How do you have the time to write?”

They say it suspiciously.

“How do you have time to write?”

You see, I’ve been lucky enough to make my living as a writer/editor for my entire adult life. For the vast majority of that time, I was employed full time by a magazine or, now, a newspaper. And in all that time, I’ve actively kept projects going outside of the workplace. (Never for competing markets, of course, or on stories that I could have written for my employer.)

Sometimes those have been book projects and freelance pieces that were assigned or contracted. Other projects have been speculative–plays, books, even poems–that did not have a guaranteed market. Either way, I’ve devoted a fair amount of what other people would consider free time to telling stories in one form or another. Posting here is yet one more example.

While most people I’ve worked with over the years have embraced this fact about me, there’s often a period of skepticism during the hiring period. The assumption is that someone writing outside the office can’t possibly be devoting full mental energy to creating inside the office. Part of my job is to prove the falseness of that assumption and I’ve hope I’ve done that.

What I’ve never voiced–and what I haven’t really considered until recently–is how selectively targeted that implied criticism is. I’ve never heard anyone ask an employee or colleague “How can you possibly have time to memorize all of those sports statistics?”, “How did you manage to screen all of ‘Breaking Bad’ over the weekend?” or “Isn’t going to the gym so often distracting you from office work?” I think it’s a fair assumption that I spent about as much computer time working on my most recent play as many people have spent playing Candy Crush. Yet their commitment to their full-time employer isn’t questioned. (Unless they are caught doing it on company time, of course.)

I’m not knocking sports fans, TV watchers, or candy crushers. What I am saying is that we’ve all got X amount of time in our lives to devote to whatever we want to devote it to. And it’s very possibly to engage passionately in whatever that is without impacting your “real” job. It might even enhance it.

Out of My Hands: On the time before the play opens.

A marker at the entrance of Butler University ...

A marker at the entrance of Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When a play of mine is about to be read publicly for the first time–when I’m in that out-of-my-hands helpless phases after the final rehearsal and before the presentation–I always seem to try to flash back to its origin.

Problem is, I can never find it.

That’s true with “Lightning and Jellyfish,” my new play that’s part of Butler University’s New Works festival. I know that, for years, I’ve wanted to write a play that’s set in Wildwood, NJ, my hometown. And I wanted to use a location similar to the rock and roll shop where I worked for many summers.

But a location isn’t a play.

A character, then?

Angela, the main character, has the spirit and stories and some of the thoughts of a number of women I’ve known over the years, a Frankenstein monster of pieces, mixed with imagination, whose stitches, I hope, don’t show as a young actress breathes life into her. The goal is for Angela to pass as a singular creature, standing on her own without the aid of factual backstory.

But her origin? In some ways, Angela began on a boardwalk date a long, long time ago. In other ways, she has the spirit of my mother and the spunk of my lost daughter. In other ways, she’s me, conveniently sex changed so that I can hide within her.

The play didn’t being to really exist for me, though, until I saw Mallery Avidon’s play “Oh Guru, Guru, Guru or Why I Don’t Want to Go to Yoga Class With You” at the 2013 Humana Festival. “Lightning and Jellyfish” doesn’t actually resemble “Guru” at all, but Avidon’s oddly shaped play gave me the confidence to try something structurally very different from anything I’d seen.

Tone? The influence on tone goes as far back as the Arden Theatre Company’s production of the first half of Brian Friel’s “The Lovers” back in the  1990s (or, at least, what I remember feeling while watching it.)

And then there’s the music of Cara Jean Marcy whose sound, more than Springsteen or Dylan, echoed in me as I wrote. And the words I shared with a dear friend, unsure how to respond when her daughter asked her questions about the universe.

The play itself, though, only began becoming viable when Diane Timmerman, chair of the Butler University theater program, asked me if I would write a play for the festival. That’s when the elements that had been swirling independently in my brain grew gears and started finding each other.

The fit was rough in the beginning, but after much grinding and sanding and readjusting, I hope we have something interesting. Wherever it came from. Faith–not a faith in a higher power but the faith that Diane showed in my work–had as much to do with its creation as anything else.

Hope you can make it Thursday night at 7 at the Schrott Center.