I’ve written about great movie mothers before (more great movie moms here). The Wall Street Journal’s article on a return to the portrayal of parents as sensible and caring inspired me to celebrate Mother’s Day this year with some of my favorite television moms.
Marion Cunningham (Marion Ross) on “Happy Days” was always there with a wholesome snack and even more wholesome advice. “Mrs. C” was the only one allowed to call Fonzie by his real first name. Broadcast during a time of great change for women, the show was a reminder that the traditional role was also of great value and worthy of respect.
Clair Huxtable (Phylicia RashÄd) on “The Cosby Show” was the elegant and almost always unflappable successful attorney and mother of five, as bemused by her husband (far from unflappable) as by her children.
Carol Brady (Florence Henderson) on “The Brady Bunch” always seemed as sweetly unaware of the show’s cheesiness as she was of the possible problems that arise in blended families. She managed to cope with six children even through such catastrophes as a visit from Davy Jones and Jan’s weird wig.
Margaret Anderson (Jane Wyatt) on “Father Knows Best” was the quintessential 1950’s ideal of a mother and homemaker, always loving and supportive of her family. Often, she was the one who really knew best.
Julia Baker (Diahann Carroll) on “Julia” was a pioneer — a single working mother and the first in more than a decade with a black performer in the lead role. Julia was a
nurse whose husband had been killed in Vietnam. I still remember her job interview over the phone in the first episode. With some apprehension, she tells the doctor she is black and he jokingly asks if she has always been black or just decided to become black since it was so fashionable. When her son Corey met the white boy who would become his best friend, he said, “Your mom’s colored!” Corey replied, “Yeah, so am I,” and the boy said, “You are?” That set the tone for a series that was if not entirely frank about race at least more upfront about it than audiences were used to in 1968 and yet still comfortably sit-comy.
Marge Simpson (voice of Julie Kavner) on “The Simpsons” is the ever-good-humored center of the family. Her character is both inspired by and a gentle parody of 1950’s sit-com mothers. While craziness goes on all around her, she is almost always the moral center of the family, eternally devoted to her often-idiotic husband and naughty son.
Patty Chase (Bess Armstrong) in “My So-Called Life” supported the family economically as well as emotionally. In a series that focused on the adolescent struggles of the teen-age daughter (Claire Danes), Patty came across both as a strong, understanding believably conflicted woman. She understood the importance of allowing her daughter to be independent, even make her own mistakes, but when things went too far she did not hesitate to step in.
Lorelei Gilmore (Lauren Graham) on “The Gilmore Girls” was a teenager when her daughter Rory was born. Rory was a teenager when the show began, and part of its appeal was the close and understanding relationship between the two of them. For most of the series, the mother-daughter conflict was kicked up a generation as Lorelei connected with her estranged (and wealthy) parents to help pay for Rory’s tuition. The most adorable mother-daughter dialogue in television history was this show’s quippy, intensely culturally aware repartee.
Olivia Walton (Michael Learned) on “The Waltons” is based on the real-life mother of series creator Earl Hammer, Jr. Olivia combined resolve with patience in raising seven children during the Depression, and part of what made the show so heartwarming was her ability to engage with each person in the family in a way that was always completely present and loving.
Aunt Bee (Frances Bavier) on “The Andy Griffith Show” is one of the best examples of indispensable mother-figures and mother-substitutes we love on television and in real life. When Sheriff Andy Taylor needed someone to help raise his son, Opie, he called in Aunt Bee, who arrives in the first episode and quickly becomes a part of the household. Other than a problem with her pickles, she is known for her excellent home cooking and other domestic skills and for her devotion to Andy and Opie.
Bob Ney was a powerful Congressman (R-Ohio) brought down — and sent to jail — by the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal. He is featured in “Casino Jack,” the new documentary about what happened. He now has a daily show on talk radio. He spoke to me about his decision to cooperate with the film and what he has learned.
Was this a chance for you to tell your side? Is that why you agreed to participate?
At first, I said I wasn’t going to do it. When I got out of what I call the Bush Housing Program, the federal prison at Morgantown, I had a lot of offers to do different shows and said no to them all, including this. And then I looked at [director] Alex Gibney’s work, the Enron movie and “Taxi to the Dark Side.” I had lived in Iran and in Saudi Arabia and it’s a painful story, but it needed to be told. I met Zena Barakat and agreed to do the IFC story she wanted me to do. She told me Neil Votlz was going to do this film and that it was going to be more than the story of Abramoff, about what’s going on now, where does this lead. So, I think it’s a way for me to give back and second it’s a way of healing for myself and third, hopefully something will come out of it to make some changes.
What kind of change would make a difference? Public financing of elections? Is that the only way to keep the corrupting influence of political contributions out of government?
I didn’t before I resigned from Congress, and I chaired House Administration and oversaw election law. I thought we just needed full transparency. Then we get caught up in the waylay of “if you don’t go to Scotland,” “if you don’t eat at Jack’s restaurant,” the problem is solved. The swamp is drained. But the swamp was drained and re-filled. There’s a lot of good people on the Hill in both parties and I’ve been treated better than I deserve to be. But a lot hasn’t changed. Maybe on the surface it has changed. Maybe nobody’s been indicted. But that doesn’t mean the system has changed. There are still quotas, money from the leaders, more money than ever, and John McCain’s reforms made no difference. It leads me to the thought that there’s got to be something better. We can take care of the ethics, but the money flow is different, and I would now lean toward some type of public financing.
What are you proudest of from your time in Congress?
The help America Vote Act with Stenny Hoyer made it easier to vote and harder to cheat. Some of the housing initiatives I worked on with Maxine Waters, I’m proudest of that. And we tried to make the Capital a better place to be. We tried to make it safe and secure, a better working environment, following 9/11 and the anthrax, secure and safe but still usable.
Tell me about Jack Abramoff and what his motivations were, his judgment.
I think he was very idealistic. He got waylaid somewhere along the line as can happen to anyone. He had a chameleon-like appeal. He was the kind of guy where you had to watch what you had to say in front of him, an Orthodox Jew, so you wouldn’t suspect he would go too far with things. I think he believes some of the things were very justified, people tend to do that. “I’m doing this and that on the Hill, very important things, so certain things are okay.” In his mind I’m not sure that to this day he might not believe he did many things wrong.
That was a shocker. The fact of his religious nature, what he had in his heart, with his faith, he was always involved with some kind of charity. When I saw some of the emails, I thought, “Oh, my God,” that was a shocker.
People might think that a political contribution can make a representative change a vote, but that isn’t the way it works, is it?
In this business, whether it’s Jack Abramoff or the people currently on the Hill, it’s a buying of access. Is there a buying of a vote? There was not one time when Neil or Jack and I exchanged a “I’ll do that and you do this.” If there was, I would have been charged with bribery. That’s when you have $90,000 cash in your freezer. I’m not saying what I did was right. But he didn’t buy my vote with a dinner. There’s a buying of access, though. It goes in multiples. Leaders of both parties give money to members. They’ll say, “You’re really causing a lot of heartburn for us. Those guys have been good to us, help us out.” And you think, “I want to be a committee chairman.” I’ve got to get re-elected. He could help me raise $100,000. If you don’t go along, you might not get that help or they could give it to your opponent. Lobbyists don’t buy votes, but they buy access.
One of the most troubling parts of the movie is when you put statements into the Congressional record in support of SunCruz and critical of its original owner, Gus Boulis, at the request of Abramoff partner Michael Scanlon, onetime communications director for Congressman Tom Delay. It was a favor to someone who gave you a $10,000 contribution.
Neil and I talked, and Scanlon came to Neil. Though Jack badmouthed Scanlon all the time. I didn’t think they were even friends. We had no idea how entangled they were. They wanted something in the Congressional Record. We read it. So what? We put it in there. The Attorney General of Florida bad-mouthed Boulis. So we put it in there. We put it in again when Boulis stepped out.
I had no idea that Abramoff was using that to try to leverage something. I don’t think Neil did either. I trusted him. But we were dumb enough to do it twice. This is the biggest criticism I have of myself. I should have said, “What the hell is going on? Something doesn’t smell right. Something doesn’t feel right.” And then we read Boulis had been shot and killed. I was furious! Neil was furious. What are we into?
What can we do about the corrupting effect of money in politics?
A corporation is not a citizen. The Citizens United decision went too far. But I never liked the John McCain approach, come on. But McCain was touchy about his Keating problem and was going to clean the system up. If he had that problem today I’d have been keeping my bunk at Morgantown warm for him. Citizens United could be an opportunity for the Hill to make some changes but maybe not. They might close a loophole, but they have to keep their campaigns going.
Who are the most significant sources of money in politics?
Financial services is a very powerful group. I’ll give Pharma credit. When they buy access they buy it lock, stock, and barrel. Congress, the Senate, the White House, Republican, Democrat, rich, poor. They get to them all.
More great TV show theme songs! This time, I’m going to focus on shows about cops and detectives and crime.
The “Hawaii Five-O” theme suggests the pounding surf and adrenalin.
The theme of “The Rockford Files” has its hero’s rumpled charm.
No one wrote better theme music than Lalo Schifrin. His most famous is probably the theme for “Mission Impossible.” But I love his theme for “Mannix.”
The cool jazz theme for “The Man from UNCLE” gave it a James Bond feeling.
The trailer for the new “A-Team” movie has a nice reference to the classic theme with its slightly military tone.
Jan Hammer’s techno theme song for “Miami Vice” was electrifying.
I spoke to writer-director Rich Christiano about making — and marketing — faith-based films.
You were really a one-man show behind the scenes for this film.
We have a good production team and worked hard on the distribution. This the third film we’ve put out theatrically. We learned a lot doing it. It played over 300 screens. We lot local churches to sponsor the movie in their cities. The churches that put forth the effort did well. We also worked with Christian radio. In Dayton, Ohio we ran 22 weeks because the radio station got the word out. In another city there was a pastor who really got behind the film and we did really well there. Promotion is the hardest part of it. We made sure we had local groups pushing the movie.
Is there a big audience for faith-based films?
The inspirational films have a lot of upside. One-third of this country goes to church each week and that’s our marketplace. And they’re an under-served audience. If everyone who goes to church would see our movie, we’d have “Avatar” numbers. Our society has changed over the last 20 years. If I’d told you back then there would be a weather channel, you would not have believed it. The Christian consumer group is now becoming more and more a player. They audience wants to watch these films; they just need to know they are there.
What do you hear about the way audiences respond to this film?
We’ve had wonderful reactions. There’s an emphasis to read the Gospel of John in the film. I heard from a lady who said her eight-year-old came home from the movie and read the Gospel of John. Then he wanted to go to Bible study like the boys in the movie. Another woman said her husband had drifted from the Lord. But when he came home he said three words that really lifted her spirit: “Where’s my Bible?” A 60-year-old lady told me her sister was visiting from Scotland and that she’d never, ever seen her cry until she saw this film. One of our sponsors in Fort Worth, Texas took his daughter to the film. When she saw a character change in the film, she told her father she wanted to show that she had been changed. There’s a strong message of forgiveness in this film. We’ve shown it in prison. Several of the prisoners wrote me a letter.
What can a movie convey better than a book or a sermon?
The church needs to recognize how powerful the audio-visual really is. I spoke to a man who was a church-goer and asked him if he could remember what his pastor preached a month ago. He couldn’t. I asked him if he could tell me about “The Wizard of Oz.” Even though he had not seen it for 15 years, he could remember all of the details.
Movies manipulate us, affect us, influence us. Most movies influence people away from the Lord. I want to use them to influence people for the Lord. There’s a spiritual battle going on and the Message of Christ is always being snuffed out. Movies are an entertainment medium, but every movie is religious because every movie has standards, every movie has a message about those standards. We’re trying to put forth films that are entertaining but put forth a message for the Lord, to inspire, to challenge thinking, to provoke spiritually, to make people think about eternity.
It was nice to see the film set in 1970 because that lends it a simplicity that suits its themes.
There’s no cell phones, no text messaging, no X-Box. I showed opening credits over pictures like old-school film-making. It’s like Mayberry with Bible study. It’s a throwback. It’s not edgy. It’s simply shot, no visual effects. It’s story-driven. It’s not an action film. It’s got laughs. And it’s got heart.