Two notable artists, one unlikely friendship.
Few friendships have been more intimate—or less likely—than that of Paddy Chayefsky, who wrote Marty and Network, and Bob Fosse, the director and choreographer of the film version of Cabaret and the original Broadway production of Chicago. Beyond the bare fact of their both having been in show business, it is hard at first glance to see what they had in common. Chayefsky was an idealistic, sexually inhibited New York Jew full of angry political passions that infused much of his later work; Fosse was an apolitical sensualist from the Midwest who sloughed off his Methodist background to lead a life in which sex and drugs played almost as large a part as dance. Yet the two men were close, so much so that Fosse, at Chayefsky’s request, danced a soft-shoe at his friend’s funeral in 1981, six years before his own death.
Now Chayefsky and Fosse have been posthumously linked by the publication of a pair of highly readable books that chronicle their divergent careers and dissimilar personalities. Dave Itzkoff’s Mad as Hell: The Making of Network and the Fateful Vision of the Angriest Man in Movies (Times Books, 304 pages) is a detailed monograph about the making of Chayefsky’s best-remembered film.
Sam Wasson’s Fosse (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 736 pages), by contrast, is a long, gossipy interview-based biography that suffers from having been written by a film scholar who appears to know little about dance or theater, the areas to which Fosse devoted the bulk of his career.But he makes it possible to understand how a man who started out as a small-time burlesque dancer evolved into the most influential musical-comedy choreographer of his generation.
Unlike Jerome Robbins, the most important Broadway choreographer of the 20th century, Fosse had no classical dance training. Born in 1927, he was, like Fred Astaire, a purely popular dancer, a “hoofer” who worked in nightclubs, on TV, and in film before starting to make dances on Broadway. As a result, his technique was restricted and his cultural awareness narrow. It was Fosse’s particular gift to transform these constricting limitations into an instantly recognizable style, one based more on mime-like imagery than virtuoso steps—and one that was closely in tune with the “liberated” age in which he worked.
Most of his dances were about sex, and many of them suggest that he was in deep conflict about his own private promiscuity, which arose from his having appeared on stage with strippers as a boy (an experience that he later dramatized in All That Jazz, the autobiographical film he made in 1979). Dancing is normally the most physically open and directly expressive of the lively arts, but to think of a Fosse show is to summon up the sinister image of a pencil-thin dancer dressed in black, arms held close to his body, with a bowler hat pulled low over his eyes so that nobody can see who he really is.
The subject matter of Cabaret, which is set in Weimar Germany at the height (or depth) of its decadence, was ideally suited to this near-fetishistic style, and Fosse’s imaginative screen adaptation of the 1966 John Kander/Fred Ebb musical version of Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories is one of a handful of Hollywood renderings of a Broadway musical to be as artistically compelling as the original stage show. No less potent, though, was the 1975 Chicago, which he co-wrote with the songwriting team of John Kander and Fred Ebb. A Brechtian “presentational” musical whose characters address the audience directly, Chicago tells the story of a tawdry pair of vaudeville chorus girls who murder their lovers, then use their resulting notoriety to win fame on the stage.
The cynicism of Chicago reflected Fosse’s bleak view of the world—and, one suspects, of himself. He claimed that the show embodied “my image of America right now.” Even Arlene Croce, the dance critic of the New Yorker, who hated the “narcissistic display and slithering innuendo” of Fosse’s choreography, was still impressed, if in spite of herself, with what Chicago had to say about America in the ’70s:
Fosse tells us that we not only permit evil to flourish in our midst but actively enjoy it and love making stars out of scheming whores…In both its shock imagery and its scabrous text, the show is a frontal assault on the audience.
Enough of the original Chicago survives in the 1996 Broadway revival to make it surpassingly clear that Fosse was the only other Broadway choreographer of the postwar era with anything like Jerome Robbins’s stylistic individuality and clarity of purpose. Robbins, who was intensely conscious of the inescapable evanescence of theatrical production, accordingly chose to abandon Broadway after Fiddler on the Roof and spend the rest of his life making dances for New York City Ballet in order to leave behind a permanent artistic legacy. Fosse’s solution was to become a filmmaker, but the results weren’t as impressive as Robbins’s. All That Jazz does has memorable moments, but it is laughably self-indulgent, and except for Cabaret, none of the other films that he directed was artistically or commercially successful. Hence it is mainly for Cabaret—and for his contributions to the conception and book of Chicago—that he will likely be remembered longest.
Paddy Chavefsky might well have suffered a similar fate, since he made his name working in a now obsolete genre, the live TV drama.
Born in 1923 to a Russian émigré couple from the Bronx, Chayefsky became famous 30 years later when Goodyear TV Playhouse, a weekly dramatic anthology series that aired on NBC from 1951 to 1957, broadcast Marty, his poignant kitchen-sink drama about a painfully plain Bronx butcher who longs for love. Urged by his mother to find himself a wife, Marty goes to a singles-only dance hall, meets a lonely girl, and falls in love.
That’s all there is to it: The art of Marty is in the telling, not the tale. As Chayefsky later explained:
I tried to write the dialogue as if it had been wire-tapped. I wanted to write a love story the way it would literally have happened to the kind of people I know…Your father, mother, sister, brothers, cousins, friends—all these are better subjects for drama than Iago.
Not only were his working-class ethnic characters believably drawn, he also had an uncanny knack for the stark visual simplicity of live TV drama, in which actors were forced to change costumes and move from one cramped set to the next as quickly as possible. He also profited from the economy imposed by the hour-long format of the then popular anthology series for which he wrote. His characters, unlike those created by Clifford Odets two decades earlier, always spoke in a down-to-earth, unpoetic way, and though he freely admitted to having been inspired by Arthur Miller, whose Death of a Salesman he had seen the week after it opened on Broadway in 1949, he never succumbed to the windy pretentiousness that was Miller’s undoing.
The 1955 film version of Marty was the first low-budget, independent American film to become a box-office hit, grossing $5 million (it cost $340,000 to make) and winning four Oscars. Its success allowed Chayefsky to set up shop as a Hollywood screenwriter. But he was slow to figure out how to use the larger canvas of film: His screen adaptation of Marty, into which he shoehorned a half-hour’s worth of extra scenes, is flabby, unlike the TV version, which contains not a superfluous line. Significantly, four of the five films written by Chayefsky in the ’50s or based on his work were adapted from his deservedly admired teleplays, and except for Marty, none of them
It thus seemed logical for him to simultaneously try his hand at the stage, for which he adapted Middle of the Night (1956, telecast in 1954) and wrote an original play, The Tenth Man (1959), a serious comedy about a group of Orthodox Jews who are attempting to exorcise a dybbuk from a young woman in 1959. Both plays had long runs on Broadway but have since failed to hold the stage, and a recent off-Broadway revival of Middle of the Night showed that like the rest of the teleplays that Chayefsky rewrote for performance in other media, it feels padded by comparison with the taut TV script on which it is based. Nor was his only major film project of the ’60s, an amusing but diffuse anti-war satire called The Americanization of Emily (1964, directed by Arthur Hiller), more than modestly effective.
Not until the ’70s did he find his post-TV footing with The Hospital (1971, directed by Arthur Hiller) and Network (1976, directed by Sidney Lumet), a gripping pair of broad-brush black comedies about decaying public institutions led by unhappy men (brilliantly played by George C. Scott and William Holden) who are undergoing wrenching midlife crises. Network is by far the better-known of the two films, mainly because of its prophetic plot, in which Howard Beale (Peter Finch), a despondent, mentally unstable TV anchorman, cracks up in the middle of the evening news and urges his viewers to fling open their windows and shout, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” The program scores a huge success in the ratings, and the network, which was about to fire Beale, decides instead to give him a series in which he is allowed to hold forth at length about anything that crosses his demented mind.
If anything, though, The Hospital is superior, not only because its plot is more tightly knit but because Chayefsky’s satiric target—the inability of well-intentioned liberals to control the roiling chaos of human action—is even better suited to the slashing ferocity of his satire. Here more than in any of his other films or plays, the rage that was so central to Chayefsky’s own psychic makeup is constructively channeled into the self-loathing of Scott’s character, the suicidal chief of medicine at a New York hospital that is, like him, falling apart at the seams.
Chayefsky’s rage, unlike Fosse’s cynicism, is rooted in a disillusion that can come only to those who have previously harbored illusions about the fundamental goodness of human nature. It is revealing that the inscription on his tombstone describes him as a “humanist.” He was the saddest kind of humanist, a chastened one, and the satirical force of The Hospital and Network, like the poignancy of Marty, is rooted in his fear that the world might actually be as bad as it looks. Fosse, by contrast, was sure that human beings are as bad as they can be—as bad, in fact, as they are in Chicago.
What, then, drew two such men together? Perhaps they recognized that they were both serious artists working in the fundamentally frivolous world of mass entertainment. Just as Chayefsky sought with occasional success to inviegle Hollywood into letting him make films like The Hospital and Network, so did Fosse succeed in bringing a musical as caustically frank as Chicago to Broadway, where it then ran for 936 performances (and where the show’s revival has been running for the past 18 years).
Perhaps, too, the difficulty of these self-imposed tasks contributed to the emotional instability that blighted their lives: Chayefsky appears to have been a full-blown manic depressive, while Fosse, an epileptic who was addicted to amphetamines for nearly his whole adult life, suffered from bouts of depression that were at times all but incapacitating. For the creative artist, such instability can be the outward sign of a gnawing lack of confidence in his own abilities. This was certainly the case with Fosse, who was all too aware of the inadequacy of his dance training. Chayefsky, by contrast, appeared to be self-confident to the point of bumptiousness, but no man who grapples with chronic depression can be so sure of his gifts as he affected to be.
Whatever the reason, both men were self-evidently at war not only with themselves, but with their decision to make serious art in an unserious milieu. Such is the inescapable fate of the American artist who embraces the populist ways of democratic mass culture in the hope of engaging with a mass audience. Sometimes he succeeds, sometimes not, but he can never forget that he is trying to persuade people who care nothing for art that they should let him spend their money so that he can try to create something beautiful and true. As countless artists who have worked on Broadway and in Hollywood have learned to their cost, that is the hardest of rows to hoe.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
Sad as Hell
Must-Reads from Magazine
A Trump of their own.
There were many arguments for opposing Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency, but the retort usually boiled down to a single glib sentence: “But he fights.”
Donald Trump could accuse John McCain of bringing dishonor upon the country and George W. Bush of being complicit in the September 11th attacks. He could make racist or misogynistic comments and even call Republican primary voters “stupid”; none of it mattered. “We right-thinking people have tried dignity,” read one typical example of this period’s pro-Trump apologia. “And the results were always the same.”
If you can get over the moral bankruptcy and selective memory inherent in this posture, it has its own compelling logic. Driving an eighteen-wheel truck through the standards of decorum that govern political discourse is certainly liberating. If there is no threshold at which the means discredit the ends, then everything is permitted. That kind of freedom has bipartisan appeal.
Democrats who once lamented the death of decency at Trump’s hands were apparently only troubled by their party’s disparity in this new rhetorical arms race. The opposition party seems perfectly happy to see standards torn down so long as their side is doing the demolition.
This week, with passions surrounding Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court reaching a crescendo, Hawaii Senator Mazie Hirono demonstrated that Democrats, too, are easily seduced by emotionally gratifying partisan outbursts. “They’ve extended a finger,” Hirono said of how Judiciary Committee Republicans have behaved toward Dr. Christine Blasey Ford since she was revealed as the woman accusing Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct as a minor. “That’s how I look at it.”
That’s an odd way to characterize the committee chairman’s offers to allow Dr. Blasey Ford the opportunity to have her story told before Congress in whatever setting she felt most comfortable. Those offers ranged from a public hearing to a private hearing to a staff interview, either publicly or behind closed doors, to even arranging for staffers to interview her at her home in California. Hirono was not similarly enraged by the fact that it was her fellow Democrats who violated Blasey Ford’s confidentiality and leaked her name to the press, forcing her to go public. But the appeal of pugnacity for its own sake isn’t rooted in consistency.
Hirono went on to demonstrate her churlish bona fides in the manner that most satisfies voters who find unthinking animus compelling: rank bigotry.
“Guess who’s perpetuating all these kinds of actions? It’s the men in this country,” Hirono continued. “Just shut up and step up. Do the right thing.” The antagonistic generalization of an entire demographic group designed to exacerbate a sense of grievance among members of another demographic group is condemnable when it’s Trump doing the generalizing and exacerbating. In Hirono’s case, it occasioned a glamorous profile piece in the Washington Post.
Hirono was feted for achieving “hero” status on the left and for channeling “the anger of the party’s base.” Her style was described as “blunt” amid an exploration of her political maturation and background as the U.S. Senate’s only immigrant. “I’ve been fighting these fights for a—I was going to say f-ing long time,” Hirono told the Post. The senator added that, despite a lack of evidence or testimony from the accuser, she believes Blasey Ford’s account of the assault over Kavanaugh’s denials and previewed her intention to “make more attention-grabbing comments” soon. Presumably, those remarks will be more “attention-grabbing” than even rank misandry.
This is a perfect encapsulation of the appeal of the fighter. It isn’t what the fight achieves but the reaction it inspires that has the most allure. But those who confuse being provocative with being effective risk falling into a trap. Trump’s defenders did not mourn the standards of decency through which Trump punched a massive hole, but the alt-right and their noxious fellow travelers also came out of that breach. The left, too, has its share of violent, aggressively mendacious, and anti-intellectual elements. They’ve already taken advantage of reduced barriers to entry into legitimate national politics. Lowering them further only benefits charlatans, hucksters, and the maladjusted.
What’s more, the “fire in the belly,” as Hillary Clinton’s former press secretary Brian Fallon euphemistically describes Hirono’s chauvinistic agitation, is frequently counterproductive. Her comments channel the liberal id, but they don’t make Republicans more willing to compromise. What Donald Trump’s supporters call “telling it like it is” is often just being a jerk. No other Republican but Trump would have callously called into question Blasey Ford’s accounting of events, for example. Indeed, even the most reckless of Republicans have avoided questioning Blasey Ford’s recollection, but not Trump. He just says what’s in his gut, but his gut has made the Republican mission of confirming Kavanaugh to the Court before the start of its new term on October 1 that much more difficult. The number of times that Trump’s loose talk prevented Republicans from advancing the ball should give pause to those who believe power is the only factor that matters.
It’s unlikely that these appeals will reach those for whom provocation for provocation’s sake is a virtue. “But he fights” is not an argument. It’s a sentiment. Hirono’s bluster might not advance Democratic prospects, but it makes Brian Fallon feel like Democrats share his anxieties. And, for some, that’s all that matters. That tells you a lot about where the Democratic Party is today, and where the country will be in 2020.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
A lesson from Finland.
High-ranking politicians are entitled to freedom of speech and conscience. That shouldn’t be a controversial statement, but it often is, especially in European countries where the range of acceptable views is narrow–and narrowing. Just ask Finnish Foreign Minister Timo Soini, who spent the summer fighting off an investigation into his participation at an anti-abortion vigil in Canada. On Friday, Soini survived a no-confidence vote in Parliament over the issue.
“In general, I’m worried that Christianity is being squeezed,” he told me in a phone interview Friday, hours after his colleagues voted 100 to 60 to allow him to keep his post. “There is a tendency to squeeze Christianity out of the public square.”
Soini had long been associated with the anti-immigration, Euroskeptic Finns Party, though last year he defected and formed a new conservative group, known as Blue Reform. Before coming to power, Soini could sometimes be heard railing against “market liberals” and “NATO hawks.” But when I interviewed him in Helsinki in 2015, soon after he was appointed foreign minister, he told me his country wouldn’t hesitate to join NATO if Russian aggression continued to escalate. He’s also a vociferous supporter of Israel.
Through all the shifts of ideology and fortune, one point has remained fixed in his worldview: Soini is a devout Catholic, having converted from Lutheranism as a young man in the 1980s, and he firmly believes in the dignity of human life from conception to natural death. “I have been in politics for many years,” he said. “Everyone knows my pro-life stance.” The trouble is that “many people want me to have my views only in private.”
Hence his ordeal of the past few months. It all began in May when Soini was in Ottawa for a meeting of the Arctic Council, of which Finland is a member. At the church he attended for Mass, he spotted a flyer for an anti-abortion vigil, to be held the following evening. He attended the vigil as a private citizen: “I wasn’t performing as a minister but in my personal capacity. This happened in my spare time.”
A colleague posted a photo of the event on his private Twitter page, however, which is how local media in Finland got wind of his presence at the rally. The complaints soon poured into the office of the chancellor of justice, who supervises the legal conduct of government ministers. A four-month investigation followed. Soini didn’t break any laws, the chancellor concluded, but he should have been more circumspect when abroad, even in his spare time.
Soini wasn’t entirely oblivious to the fact that he was treading on sensitive ground. A top diplomat can never quite operate like a private citizen, much as a private citizen can’t act like a diplomat (someone tell John Kerry). Still, does anyone imagine that Soini would land in such hot water if he had attended a vigil for action on climate change? Or one in favor of abortion rights?
“No, no, no. I wouldn’t say so … The Finnish official line is that I should be careful because abortion is legal in Finland and Canada.” So the outrage is issue-specific and, to be precise, worldview-specific. In Nordic countries, especially, the political culture is consensus-based to a fault, and the consensus is that the outcome of the 1960s sexual revolution will never be up for debate. Next door in Sweden, midwives are blacklisted from the profession for espousing anti-abortion views. Ditto for Norwegian doctors who refuse to dispense IUDs and abortifacients on conscience grounds.
The consensus expects ministers to bring their views into line or keep their mouths shut. “This is of course clearly politics,” Soini told me. “I think I have freedom of conscience. I haven’t done anything wrong. This is me practicing my religion.” And the free exercise of religion means having the right to espouse the moral teachings of one’s faith—or it means nothing.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
Banality and evil.
A week ago, I wondered what was going on in Sunspot, New Mexico. The FBI had swept into this mountain-top solar observatory, complete with Black Hawk helicopters, evacuated everyone, and closed the place down with no explanation whatever. Local police were politely told to butt out. It was like the first scene in a 1950’s Hollywood sci-fi movie, probably starring Walter Pidgeon.
Well, now we know, at least according to the New York Post.
If you’re hoping for little green men saying, “Take me to your leader,” you’re in for a disappointment. It seems the observatory head had discovered a laptop with child pornography on it that belonged to the janitor. The janitor then made veiled threats and in came the Black Hawks.
In sum, an all-too-earthly explanation with a little law-enforcement overkill thrown in.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
The demands of the politicized life.
John Cheney-Lippold, an associate professor of American Culture at the University of Michigan, has been the subject of withering criticism of late, but I’m grateful to him. Yes, he shouldn’t have refused to write a recommendation for a student merely because the semester abroad program she was applying to was in Israel. But at least he exposed what the boycott movement is about, aspects of which I suspect some of its blither endorsers are unaware.
We are routinely told, as we were by the American Studies Association, that boycott actions against Israel are “limited to institutions and their official representatives.” But Cheney-Lippold reminds us that the boycott, even if read in this narrow way, obligates professors to refuse to assist their own students when those students seek to participate in study abroad programs in Israel. Dan Avnon, an Israeli academic, learned years ago that the same goes for Israel faculty members seeking to participate in exchange programs sponsored by Israeli universities. They, too, must be turned away regardless of their position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
When the American Studies Association boycott of Israel was announced, over two hundred college presidents or provosts properly and publicly rejected it. But even they might not have imagined that the boycott was more than a symbolic gesture. Thanks to Professor Cheney-Lippold, they now know that it involves actions that disserve their students. Yes, Cheney-Lippold now says he was mistaken when he wrote that “many university departments have pledged an academic boycott against Israel.” But he is hardly a lone wolf in hyper-politicized disciplines like American Studies, Asian-American Studies, and Women’s Studies, whose professional associations have taken stands in favor of boycotting Israel. Administrators looking at bids to expand such programs should take note of their admirably open opposition to the exchange of ideas.
Cheney-Lippold, like other boycott defenders, points to the supposed 2005 “call of Palestinian civil society” to justify his singling out of Israel. “I support,” he says in comments to the student newspaper, “communities who organize themselves and ask for international support to achieve equal rights, freedom and to prevent violations of international law.” Set aside the absurdity of this reasoning (“Why am I not boycotting China on behalf of Tibet? Because China has been much more effective in stifling civil society!”). Focus instead on what Cheney- Lippold could have found out by Googling. The first endorser of the call of “civil society” is the Council of National and Islamic Forces (NIF) in Palestine, which includes Hamas, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and other groups that trade not only in violent resistance but in violence that directly targets noncombatants.
That’s remained par for the course for the boycott movement. In October 2015, in the midst of the series of stabbings deemed “the knife intifada,” the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel shared a call for an International Day with the “new generation of Palestinians” then “rising up against Israel’s brutal, decades-old system of occupation.” To be sure, they did not directly endorse attacks on civilians, but they did issue their statement of solidarity with “Palestinian popular resistance” one day after four attacks that left three Israelis–all civilians–dead.
The boycott movement, in other words, can sign on to a solidarity movement that includes the targeting of civilians for death, but cannot sign letters of recommendation for their own undergraduates if those undergraduates seek to learn in Israel. That tells us all we need to know about the boycott movement. It was nice of Cheney-Lippold to tell us.