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Sheila Benson

Notes From the Bottom of Every Office Pool

Let’s pick through this year’s full-on melodrama at the Academy Award nominations and see what seems to stand out.  Is this deep, inside stuff you can take to the betting window or the office pool?  Good heavens no. I’m habitually awful at that game.  This is a bemused look around by someone a little off to one side, and just crazy enough to take it all in.

You want depth, the internet now churns with writers whose depth of field in Oscar stats is stunning, although sometimes it seems that the Oscars are their only world.

For clarity, and a sense of proportion on the nominations (and all things Hollywood), I’d trust the New York Times team of Michael Cieply and Brooke Barnes who, among other challenges, make the virtually impenetrable Academy rule changes clear, and do it with a sheen of wit.  They’re non-geeky and nicely reliable.

As for me, it looks as though the Academy has tried to shake things up.  A little. So we have Demian Bichir on the Best Actors list for A Better Life, and Nick Nolte as a Best Supporting Actor in Warrior(Now to find those films!)  We have the fortitude of the Animation Committee who resisted The Adventures of Tin Tin in all its mirthlessness, and having been left off nearly every of those churning prognosticators’ lists, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy  came out of the cold.  Thrilled to see its 3 nominations, especially Gary Oldman’s first.

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A Streep for all seasons, especially this one

Have not awakened from deep Streep mode over here. Partly because the Weinstein Company has been working her like a dog to see that The Iron Lady gets a decent lift-off. Thus her Kennedy Center Honors now, a Vogue cover, a Newsweek cover, plus an appearance – and an unsurprising win — at the otherwise crushingly dull Golden Globes. (Well, she and Idris Elba. That was nice.)

Then it’s the Oscars, February 26th (nominations January 28th.) I have less than no faith in that august body, which moves like lemmings with a strong startle reaction. Think back to that clip from Julie & Julia during the Kennedy Center night, when Stanley Tucci’s Paul Child asks his wife Julia what she likes to do best, and, brimming with enthusiasm and a mouth full of divine French food, she says, “Eat!” Consider the pure joy of that performance.

Then remember: that year, Academy voters preferred Sandra Bullock.

It makes me worry that they’ll let her towering work as Margaret Thatcher go unacknowledged while they dither over its “propriety” or “historical inaccuracy” or, heaven help us, its “anti-feminism.”  Really!

So, at this house it’s been one or another of her 46 features, each night, with or without friends, just to warm up the gods.  We’ve had The River Wild, which she said she made to prove to her girls that she was brave, and A Cry in the Dark and Sophie’s Choice, which proved it to the world. Next is One True Thing, her open-hearted evocation of the kind of small town Americans she grew up around.

I also dug out hindsight from the file, to prove that my appreciation isn’t a sometimes thing.  This was from the late 80s, an attempt to sum up her decade of extraordinary portraits.

“With Sophie’s Choice the disappearance of Meryl Streep into the persona of a well-born Polish Catholic survivor of the Nazi death camps approaches the eerie. Whether she is speaking excellent German or halting or fluent English, Sophie must convince us that her mother tongue is Polish. At one time or another, she must be “utterly, fatally glamourous,” grey-green with malnutrition, giddily flirtatious, besotted with love or romantically melancholic.  All the while, at the deepest level, she is carrying a secret horrendous enough to char the edges of anyone’s soul.

Continue reading at Critic Quality Feed, the new blog from Sheila Benson

“I try to get the essence of things” – An Interview with Horton Foote

[Editor’s note – This interview appeared in a very different form in the November/December 1996 issue of Modern Maturity. The introduction was written specifically for this publication.]

Horton Foote died March 5th, 2009, at his daughter Hallie’s home in Connecticut where he was at work cutting his ‘Orphan’s Home Cycle’ from 9 plays into a 3-act version for Broadway in the Fall of 2009.  Broadway theatres dimmed their lights in his honor for one minute that night.

Horton Foote at his New York apartment with some of his collection of Americana, reproduced with the kind permission of the photographer, Jeanne Strongin
Horton Foote at his New York apartment with some of his collection of Americana, reproduced with the kind permission of the photographer, Jeanne Strongin

I spent a week with Horton Foote in 1993, in Wharton, Texas, the town he had been writing about all his life, in one form or another. The calm, high-ceilinged house he lived in reflected a lifetime of collecting, at flea markets and country auctions, with a great eye and a gambler’s luck. Horton and his wife Lillian had gathered superb pieces of Americana, naïve folk paintings and family silhouettes and mixed them with wit and sureness and a touch of the unexpected.

Coming down the steps in his trademark black suit, both arms outstretched, he was a mixture of warmth and Southern concern and for the week that followed, he had the knack of seeming to sublimate his densely packed schedule to mine. With his cherub’s face and his thatch of silver hair, he was at the same time buoyant and optimistic, and deeply and intrinsically tenacious (that thread common to his finest characters.)

Directly next door, where he put up guests, sits the white bungalow-style house in which Foote was born. Unlike most of the rest of the country, there’s a sense of continuity in Wharton. It comes out in strolls around his slowly emptying town, where Foote is still a local celebrity and can tell the history of every family in every house, many of whom are kin, in varying degrees of closeness.

As deeply rooted as Foote is in Wharton, he has been equally entwined with his family: Lillian Vallish Foote, his inseparable partner of 48 years, and their 4 children: Hallie and Horton Jr. who are actors, Walter, a lawyer and Daisy, a playwright.

In August, 1992, Lillian Foote died, after a brief illness. In September, The Roads to Home opened in New York, the play on which her husband and daughter were working at the time of her illness. The following May, Hallie won an Obie for that performance, which her father wrote and directed.

Sheila Benson: You’ve written in so many forms, how do you think of yourself?

Horton Foote: I’m essentially a story teller, although the people that are hardest on me always say that I don’t have enough story. I guess what will get me going is the human condition. But what I do, through thinking and thinking and thinking and thinking, I try to get the essence of things.

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Art, Life and Politics

Art, Life and Politics

With the arrival of Sarah Palin, American politics has strayed deep into Wag the Dog territory, but it wasn’t until last night, as even ad hoc members of Alaska’s First Family were lined up for her speech, that I realized that if I were Levi Johnston, I’d be very, very worried. Squinting your eyes, you can just about see the future of Sex on Skates:

His Face Book profile (in which he says he has no plans to get married) has already been taken down. Next, I think he’ll be out drinkin’, prolly with Track or some other buddies, get bleary, blotto drunk, and wake up the next morning to find that somehow, although he can’t remember it, he has enlisted in the U.S. Army.

His protests will get him nowhere; in record time, he’ll find himself in a still-dangerous corner of Afghanistan where, suddenly, somehow a stray bullet will end his young life.

This casket will be photographed. His pregnant grieving widow will meet the plane, most likely still hauling around Trig, since that seems to be her job; his (would-be) mother-in-law will meet the plane; the honor guard will be there. God knows John McCain will be there. There’ll be talk of burial at Arlington Cemetery, although in the end, Alaska will win with its claims of unlimited fuel reserves for the Eternal Flame.

All of us who know and love Wag the Dog will recognize this as the Old Shoe moment brought to life. For the rest, there’s Netflix.

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