Susan Boyle, the middle-aged Scottish youngest of nine, who does not have a job and spent most of her adult years caring for her late mother, sang on a television show last week and has now become a worldwide phenomenon. She does not have a computer and had never heard of YouTube, but her video clip on that site has been watched more than 37 million times. And now she even has a fan page.
She has a lovely, clear voice. And the song she sang, “I Dreamed a Dream” from “Les Miserables,” seemed to define the moment, filled with hope and longing in spite of all obstacles. But what has made her a sensation is the overall surprise of her. My favorite part of the video clip is when the three judges admit that they had judged her based on her sensible shoes, thick brows, and general country bumpkin aura. (Simon pretends that he knew all along she was going to blow everyone away but even he is almost undone by her.)
We all love underdog stories. I think the reason we love Susan Boyle and weep at her performance is not that she surprised us as much as that we would all love to have that moment of triumph over expectations, of being seen for what is most special about us.
Now, inevitably, there is the debate about whether she should change. I imagine the women’s magazines are going crazy right now, their tweezers and highlight foil shaking in their hands, perishing to do a makeover.
The Washington Post’s Robin Givhan says she needs one.
Now that Boyle has become famous — and her fame portends a financial windfall for someone, if not her — the decision is no longer merely a reflection of her desires. Indeed, the wrong decision has the capacity to unravel the centuries-long tradition of fairy tales. In other words, of course Susan Boyle should have a makeover. Isn’t that why fairy godmothers were created?
I usually agree with Givhan, who I think is brilliant about fashion, culture, and semiotics. But this time I am not so sure. She is quick to reassure us that she does not mean Nip/Tuck and Botox.
Boyle, who steps into the spotlight, tweaks our cultural ambivalence about appearance, and wows folks with her talent. And the public flat out goes nuts. Bonkers. People got teary-eyed and goose-pimpled. Boyle would not be mesmerizing if she were not an ugly duckling. Her success is fueled by the fact that everyone assumed she was going to be a loser because she looked like the standard version of one as defined by the collective archives of movies, TV and literature.
Boyle beat the system that rewards the drop-dead gorgeous 10s and ignores the 3s and 4s. And people love her for that. Her rough-cut curls and sensible shoes make them feel virtuous. If she should decide to take designers up on their offer of free flattering frocks, avail herself of a smart new haircut and vigorous eyebrow arching, would she ruin the fun being had by her millions of fans?
The point of a proper makeover, however, is not to look like someone else but the best version of yourself. This is not a recommendation for an “Extreme Makeover,” but rather the Tim Gunn or “What Not to Wear” version. Those are the kind of transformations in which the recipients spend a little time figuring out precisely why they’ve been squeamish about trying to achieve their personal best.
I have no problem saying that this is Susan Boyle’s personal best and that her apparent comfort with herself as she is (did she actually plaster the contestant’s sticker on her chest?) is as appealing as her singing. If the audience thinks of Susan Boyle as an ugly duckling, it isn’t she who needs a makeover. It is us.
The Disney Princesses, each the star of her own movie, are now a team and something of a marketing juggernaut. They have transcended their individual stories and now appear together in a wide range of merchandise. And now Snow White (born a princess and married to a prince), Cinderella (married a prince), Little Mermaid Ariel (born a princess and married a prince), Belle (married a prince), and Sleeping Beauty (born a princess and married to a prince) will be joined by the first African-American princess, Tiana.
Disney has had non-white female lead characters before — Mulan (not a princess or married to a prince), Jasmine (born a princess), and Pocahontas (a Native American equivalent to a princess). But Tiana is the first African-American to star in her own fairy tale movie, based on a combination of a traditional story, a recent novel, and Disney’s own magical transformation. According to The Washington Post’s Neely Tucker,
It draws inspiration from an 18th-century fairy tale from the British Isles, and “The Frog Princess,” a 2002 teen novel from Maryland writer E.D. Baker. Disney transferred the story to 1920s New Orleans and changed her name, race and almost everything else.
In the Disney version, Tiana is a young waitress and talented chef who dreams, like her father, of owning her own restaurant. She eventually kisses a frog and is transformed into one. She must journey into the dark bayou to get a magical cure from a good voodoo queen. She is aided by a goofy firefly and a trumpet-playing alligator. The frog turns out to be handsome Prince Naveen, from the far-off and fictional land of Maldonia.
The stills released by the studio show Tiana in full princess regalia: a powder-blue gown, tiara and hair in an elegant upsweep.
Tony Award winner Anika Noni Rose voices Tiana. Other parts are played by Oprah Winfrey, John Goodman, Terrence Howard and Keith David. The music is by Oscar winner (and New Orleans veteran) Randy Newman. It is directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, the same team behind “Aladdin” and “The Little Mermaid.”
Tucker writes about the sensitivity involved in this image, as have all of the Disney heroines, which have been criticized for ethnic and gender concerns. At one time, he writes, the character was called Maddy, short for Madeline, but it sounded too much like “a slave name.” The love interest is of indeterminate race.
Prince Naveen, for the record, is neither white nor black, but portrayed with olive skin, dark hair and, need we state the obvious, a strong chin. The actor who plays him, Bruno Campos, hails from Brazil.
Tiana is a fantasy figure and so it is not surprising that she fits an idealized and doll-friendly image. But we have come a long way from the racially insensitive images in past films like “Dumbo,” “Peter Pan,” and “Song of the South.” I appreciate the care and yes, love, that have gone into creating this character and I am really pleased to have what appears to be a very strong and beautiful role model added to the princess line-up.
More than 30 years after he resigned from office, Richard M. Nixon has transcended politics and history and become epic. He has been portrayed on film by Anthony Hopkins, the man who won an Oscar playing Hannibal the Cannibal. And his trip to China has been the subject of an opera, the art form most suited for larger-than-life stories of melodrama and scope. Nixon is like a Shakespearean character, the ability and ambition and the tragic flaws of Richard III, Lear, or Othello.
No one work of art or history will ever contain this man of extraordinary contradictions, but in one of this year’s best films, based on the Tony award-winning play, writer Peter Morgan, director Ron Howard, and actors Frank Langella and Michael Sheen take a pivotal moment in Nixon’s life and make it into a gripping story of the craving of two very different men for power and acceptance and how it plays into a contest of wit and will that becomes a larger story of accountability and meaning.
Richard Nixon was all but exiled to his house on the ocean in San Clemente following his resignation from the Presidency in 1974, relegated to working on his memoirs and finding excuses not to play golf. British broadcaster David Frost was also in a kind of an exile following cancellation of his New York-based talk show, relegated to lightweight celebrity interviews and presiding over televised stunts. Both were desperate for a way to get back into a position of influence. Frost proposed a series of interviews, even though he had no background as a journalist or historian. And Nixon accepted, in part because Frost had not background as a journalist or historian and in part because he would get paid $600,000 and a percentage of the profits. Negotiated by uber-agent Swifty Lazar (a shrewd Toby Jones) and widely criticized as “checkbook journalism,” the payment may have been unorthodox but it was most likely one of the most important factors in eliciting the unprecedented level of candor from the former President, not because of the incentives but because it shifted the balance of power from the subject to the interviewer.
It was also a stunning example of the precise conflict at the heart of so many of Nixon’s failures — his desperate need for approval. He accepted the interview as a way to try to regain his reputation as an elder statesman and remind America of his accomplishments and value. But once again, as it did in 1960 in the first televised Presidential debate, he was defeated by television, but what a character refers to as the power of the close-up. In yet another of this film’s infinite regression of paradoxes, the close-up that most exposes Nixon comes closest to creating sympathy for him. It is one thing to read about the evasions and cover-ups and corruption. It is another to see his face, the desperation, the soul-destroying awareness of how far he was from what he wanted to be.
Staged like a boxing match between the aging champ and the upstart, Howard and Morgan show us the combatants in training, sparring, retreating to their corners for some splashes of water, and then back into it, each going for the knock-out punch. They manage to create sympathy for both men without any shyness about their flaws. Both have some monstrous qualities but neither is a monster.
Sheen and Langella, after months performing together on stage, fully inhabit the roles and are exquisitely attuned to each other. Langella has the more showy character, but Sheen is every bit as precise. Watch the way he orders his lunch. In a millisecond he conveys all of his skills and all of his vulnerabilities. Even in the middle of an important conversation with his producer he stops and gives his full attention to the person behind the counter at the cafeteria and he orders in a way that perfectly demonstrates his charm, his showy self-deprecation, and his need to be noticed and approved of by every person on the planet.
And then there is Nixon, that infinitely interesting jumble of contradictions. Langella shows us his glimmers of self-awareness that cannot add up to meaningful insight. Morgan has taken the privilege of a writer to make it truthful without being accurate in every detail. For one thing, it has better dialogue. Morgan’s “The Queen” was another story of politics, celebrity, history, and conflict between two strong public characters (the younger one played by Michael Sheen) . As he did there, his selection of the elements of the story he wants to highlight and explore allows him to make this men not just historical figures but symbols of duality and contradiction and ultimately to deliver some over-arching messages about what it means to be human.
One of the things I find most thrilling about movies is that they are timeless. Watch a movie and you can see the same performance your grandparents watched when it was first released. We will never know what it was like to hear Jenny Lind sing or see Sarah Bernhardt on stage, but we can watch Cary Grant, the Marx Brothers, Marilyn Monroe, Humphrey Bogart, Audrey Hepburn, James Dean, and John Wayne at their very best. That is why I am so happy about Warner Brothers opening up its archive to make available for the first time some of their treasured releases.
Take a look at the listings and you are sure to find some favorites you have not seen in years and some very worthwhile surprises. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s only screen credit was for “Three Comrades,” a heartbreaking drama set in pre-WWII Germany with an incandescent appearance by Margaret Sullavan. There are biographies of Thomas Edison (with Spencer Tracy), Abraham Lincoln (with Raymond Massey), and “An Affair to Remember” co-stars Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr re-team in “Dream Wife,” about a diplomatic advisor assigned to assist on the upcoming wedding of her former beau to an Asian princess. One of Warren Beatty’s most arresting early performances is in a little-known film called “All Fall Down,” co-starring Eva Marie Saint, Karl Malden, Angela Lansbury, and “Shane’s” Brandon de Wilde. And Burt Reynolds appears in “Angel Baby’ with Salome Jens, who is mesmerizing as an evangelical preacher. Some are available for on demand download as well as on DVD and many have clips available online. Desson Thomson talked to NPR’s Scott Simon about some of the highlights of the collection. I will be highlighting some of my other favorites in upcoming posts.
Turner Classic Movies’ Robert Osborne likes to quote Lauren Bacall about old movies: “If you haven’t seen it, it’s new to you.” These films are not all classics, but there is something there for everyone.