Sunday, 9 December 2018

How the hell have you done it?



On April 18th of 1961, it was announced that iconic Hollywood star Gary Cooper was dying of cancer after a glittering 36 year career that saw him amass countless fans, plaudits, and awards across the globe. Weeks after that news broke, and just days before he died, Cooper received the following fan letter from Kirk Douglas, who at the time was producing and starring in Lonely are the Brave (titled The Last Hero during production), an adaptation of Edward Abbey's Western novel, The Brave Cowboy.

(Huge thanks to Paul Ryan. Photos: Gary Cooper in The Winning of Barbara Worth, 1926, via Wikimedia; Kirk Douglas in 1955, via Wikimedia.)


The Letter

Western Skies Hotel
Albuquerque, New Mexico
May 4, 1961

Mr. Gary Cooper
Beverly Hills

Dear Coop:

When for years you’ve had affection for a guy and you find it suddenly turning to resentment you begin to think it deserves some kind of comment. When the guy you find yourself disliking is loved by the entire world you know damn well you better explain.

What I'm talking about is me not liking you.

Put yourself in my spot. I'm doing a picture that should have been done by only one guy. I know it--my entire company knows it.

Start with the title--”The Last Hero." Now whom does that fit--me? Hell no!

Next the author. Edward Abbey--a ranger working in the Petrified Forest. They tell me before I meet him that he's written about himself. So now he comes to Albuquerque where we're shooting and I go to meet him at the airport. Fifty guys step off the plane but I spot him immediately. Why? He looks like Gary Cooper. To make matters worse when I meet him he talks like Cooper!

So now we start shooting and I learn first that I have an insensitive director who doesn't give a damn about anything except making the picture real. I give you verbatim my first--and only--direction--"Just try and play this the way Gary Cooper would."

When I say “only" I don't mean I get this "hint" once--I mean it's the only thing I hear before each shot--and by the fourth day I have now decided I must get close to being Coop just so I can stop being hounded.

Ah--but there's the rub. It sounded easy to me--because I say to myself Coop is a simple man--natural. So I'll just be natural. Then I learned the big--big lesson. It ain't easy. My temptation is to ask how the hell have you done it? What is the secret to this peace with yourself and your world? But then I know you couldn't possibly tell me--I'd have to live your entire life--grow--adjust--mature--as you have done.

And I know now that at best I will come remotely close. But more important--I do know also, that just trying to be you--will make a better me.

So, Coop--even though I may be sore as hell at you now--thanks.

Kirk

Sunday, 4 November 2018

There is no danger down here



On October 31st, 1918, as the First World War neared its end, celebrated war poet and officer of the Second Manchesters Wilfred Owen wrote home to his mother. Sadly, this would be his last letter. Four days later--exactly a century ago--Owen was shot dead as he led his company across the Sambre–Oise Canal. His mother was informed of his death a week later, on Armistice Day, by telegram. In 1919, Wilfed Owen was awarded the Military Cross.

Transcript follows. The original handwritten pages of Owen's final letter can be seen on the website of The First World War Poetry Digital Archive, University of Oxford. His poetry can be found at the Poetry Foundation.

The Letter

Oct. 31. Thurs.
6.15 p.m.

Dearest Mother,

I will call the place from which I’m now writing "The Smoky Cellar of the Forester’s House". I write on the first sheet of the writing pad which came in the parcel yesterday. Luckily the parcel was small, as it reached me just before we moved off to the line. Thus only the paraffin was unwelcome in my pack. My servant & I ate the chocolate in the cold middle of last night, crouched under a draughty Tamboo, roofed with planks. I husband the Malted Milk for tonight, & tomorrow night. The handkerchief & socks are most opportune, as the ground is marshy, & I have a slight cold!

So thick is the smoke in this cellar that I can hardly see by a candle 12 ins. away, and so thick are the inmates that I can hardly write for pokes, nudges & jolts. On my left the Coy. Commander snores on a bench: other officers repose on wire beds behind me. At my right hand, Kellett, a delightful servant of A Coy in The Old Days radiates joy & contentment from pink cheeks and baby eyes. He laughs with a signaller, to whose left ear is glued the Receiver; but whose eyes rolling with gaiety show that he is listening with his right ear to a merry corporal, who appears at this distance away (some three feet) nothing [but] a gleam of white teeth & a wheeze of jokes.

Splashing my hand, an old soldier with a walrus moustache peels & drops potatoes into the pot. By him, Keyes, my cook, chops wood; another feeds the smoke with the damp wood.

It is a great life. I am more oblivious than alas! yourself, dear Mother, of the ghastly glimmering of the guns outside, & the hollow crashing of the shells.

There is no danger down here, or if any, it will be well over before you read these lines.

I hope you are as warm as I am; as serene in your room as I am here; and that you think of me never in bed as resignedly as I think of you always in bed. Of this I am certain you could not be visited by a band of friends half so fine as surround me here.

Ever Wilfred x

Thursday, 20 July 2017

It’s the trip of a lifetime



In the early hours of July 21st, 1969, shortly after the Apollo Lunar Module landed on its surface, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to step foot on the Moon. 28 years later, Buzz wrote a letter to Barry Goldman, a professor at the University of Maryland.

Transcript follows.

(Many thanks to Benjamin Cole.)



Transcript
September 25, 1997

Dear Mr. Goldman,

I am writing to you to share some of my personal ideas and thoughts about my experiences related to the moon landing.

I have often described the moon as a “magnificent desolation.” Its rocky horizon curved against the deep black of space, making it perfectly obvious that we were standing on a ball spinning through the universe.

When I planted the American flag on the dusty surface of the moon, I had an unusual thought: A billion people were watching me on television. Human beings had never been farther away than we were nor had more people thinking about them!

I think the spirit and the sense of involvement exhibited by the numbers of people who remember where they were when that event happened make it even more apparent to me over the years that the moonwalk added value to the lives of all the people who participated in it. Every person felt good about the nation achieving it--that the world, that humanity could have done this.

I have snapshots of myself on the moon that will always remind me of that strange and fascinating place. Someday in the future as people are mulling over their vacation plans, I hope they’ll choose to fly into space. It’s the trip of a lifetime.

Regarding your questions of space exploration in 50 years: all of the rationales reduce to one simple truth: we will walk on Mars in the spirit and wonder that sets our species apart.

Sincerely,

Buzz Aldrin
APOLLO XI

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

It's up to you now


In 1983, at the end of an amazing career during which she was nominated for a then-record breaking ten Academy Awards for acting, two of which she won, Hollywood actress Bette Davis was diagnosed with breast cancer. Surgery followed, as did a number of strokes which left her partially paralysed. Then, in 1985, her daughter, Barbara, released a controversial book, titled My Mother's Keeper, that exposed their supposedly troubled relationship and generally painted Davis in a terrible light. Two years later, Bette Davis published her memoirs—at the very end was this letter to her daughter.

(This letter, along with 124 other fascinating pieces of correspondence, can be found in the bestselling book, Letters of Note; Photo of BD Hyman and Bette Davis: Getty Images.)


The Letter
Dear Hyman,

You ended your book with a letter to me. I have decided to do the same.

There is no doubt you have a great potential as a writer of fiction. You have always been a great storyteller. I have often, lo these many years, said to you, "B.D., that is not the way it was. You are imagining things."

Many of the scenes in your book I have played on the screen. It could be you have confused the "me" on the screen with "me" who is your mother.

I have violent objections to your quotes of mine regarding actors I have worked with. For the most part, you have cruelly misquoted me. Ustinov I was thrilled to work with and I have great admiration of him as a person and as an actor. You have stated correctly my reactions to working with Faye Dunaway. She was a most exasperating co-star. But to quote me as having said Sir Laurence Olivier was not a good actor is most certainly one of the figments of your imagination. Few actors have ever reached the towering heights of his performances.

You constantly inform people that you wrote this book to help me understand you and your way of life better. Your goal was not reached. I am now utterly confused as to who you are or what your way of life is.

The sum total of your having written this book is a glaring lack of loyalty and thanks for the very privileged life I feel you have been given.

In one of your many interviews while publicizing your book, you said if you sell your book to TV you feel Glenda Jackson should play me. I would hope you would be courteous enough to ask me to play myself.

I have much to quarrel about in your book. I choose to ignore most of it. But not the pathetic creature you claim I have been because of the fact that I did not play Scarlett in "Gone With the Wind." I could have, but turned it down. Mr. Selznick attempted to get permission from my boss, Jack Warner, to borrow Errol Flynn and Bette Davis to play Rhett Butler and Scarlett. I refused because I felt Errol was not good casting for Rhett. At that time only Clark Gable was right. Therefore, dear Hyman, send me not back to Tara, rather send me back to Witch Way, our home on the beautiful coast of Maine where once lived a beautiful human being by the name of B.D., not Hyman.

As you ended your letter in "My Mother's Keeper" — it's up to you now, Ruth Elizabeth — I am ending my letter to you the same way: It's up to you now, Hyman.

Ruth Elizabeth

P.S. I hope someday I will understand the title "My Mother's Keeper." If it refers to money, if my memory serves me right, I've been your keeper all these many years. I am continuing to do so, as my name has made your book about me a success.

Thursday, 16 February 2017

Speeches of Note



Ladies and gentlemen!

For the past few years I've been working on a new book--a collection of speeches titled, unsurprisingly, Speeches of Note--and I'm very excited to say that you can now pledge for this beautiful object over at the mighty Unbound and then visit the Speeches of Note blog which I shall be updating regularly.

The Speeches of Note book will celebrate oratory old and new, taking care not just to highlight the speeches that we know and admire but also to shine a light on those speeches which, despite their brilliance, have until now been largely ignored in these collections through no fault of their own. Some, for compelling reasons, were never actually read aloud. Speeches of all flavours will feature--enlightening, gripping, comforting, disturbing, cheering, emboldening--and the majority accompanied either by a photograph of the speaker or the speech being made, a gorgeous illustration, or even, where possible, a facsimile of the original speech itself. Each entry will feature an introduction that will offer the context necessary for the speech to be fully appreciated. Anthologies of speeches have been published before; however, none have contained a selection quite like Speeches of Note.

To watch me speaking very badly about the book, and to get your name in the back of the special edition, visit Unbound. As always, suggestions are very much welcome--the easiest way to do so is via the Speeches of Note submission page.

Much love and thanks,
Shaun

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Diversity guarantees our cultural survival



In November of 1993, a week after the death of celebrated Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini, the New York Times published an article by Bruce Weber in which he made clear his impatience with the supposedly opaque, perplexing movies of directors like Fellini. One person who read the piece was Martin Scorsese--he responded by letter.

(Source: New York Times; Photo: Scorsese in 2006, via Peabody Awards on Flickr.)

The Letter
New York,
19 Nov 1993

To the Editor:

“Excuse Me; I Must Have Missed Part of the Movie” (The Week in Review, 7 November) cites Federico Fellini as an example of a filmmaker whose style gets in the way of his storytelling and whose films, as a result, are not easily accessible to audiences. Broadening that argument, it includes other artists: Ingmar Bergman, James Joyce, Thomas Pynchon, Bernardo Bertolucci, John Cage, Alain Resnais and Andy Warhol.

It’s not the opinion I find distressing, but the underlying attitude toward artistic expression that is different, difficult or demanding. Was it necessary to publish this article only a few days after Fellini’s death? I feel it’s a dangerous attitude, limiting, intolerant. If this is the attitude toward Fellini, one of the old masters, and the most accessible at that, imagine what chance new foreign films and filmmakers have in this country.

It reminds me of a beer commercial that ran a while back. The commercial opened with a black and white parody of a foreign film—obviously a combination of Fellini and Bergman. Two young men are watching it, puzzled, in a video store, while a female companion seems more interested. A title comes up: “Why do foreign films have to be so foreign?” The solution is to ignore the foreign film and rent an action-adventure tape, filled with explosions, much to the chagrin of the woman.

It seems the commercial equates “negative” associations between women and foreign films: weakness, complexity, tedium. I like action-adventure films too. I also like movies that tell a story, but is the American way the only way of telling stories?

The issue here is not “film theory,” but cultural diversity and openness. Diversity guarantees our cultural survival. When the world is fragmenting into groups of intolerance, ignorance and hatred, film is a powerful tool to knowledge and understanding. To our shame, your article was cited at length by the European press.

The attitude that I’ve been describing celebrates ignorance. It also unfortunately confirms the worst fears of European filmmakers.

Is this closed-mindedness something we want to pass along to future generations?

If you accept the answer in the commercial, why not take it to its natural progression:

Why don’t they make movies like ours?
Why don’t they tell stories as we do?
Why don’t they dress as we do?
Why don’t they eat as we do?
Why don’t they talk as we do?
Why don’t they think as we do?
Why don’t they worship as we do?
Why don’t they look like us?

Ultimately, who will decide who “we” are?

—Martin Scorsese