Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Keeping Friends Close, Frenemies Closer

How do life events shape one's personality? Some people manage to become optimistic through thick and thin while others turn inward, becoming bitter, cranky curmudgeons. Comedian Will Rogers is famous for claiming that "I never met a person that I did not want to like." Stop and think, for a moment, how that sentiment compares to Grover Norquist's credo: "My goal is to cut government in half. I simply want to reduce it to the size where we can drown it in a bathtub."

Sometimes happy people can be irritating. More often than not, they've realized that life is infinitely more bearable if one maintains a positive attitude. Whether these sentiments come from popular songs or common wisdom, they can be stepping stones to a brighter future:
When my computer suffered a malware attack this weekend (after I had suffered through four days of sleep deprivation) I may have been extremely frustrated at not being able to get online. But thankfully, over the years, I've learned a very important lesson: When things go wrong, it always helps to look down at your feet. If you don't see a pool of blood, you might just live to see another day.

Not everyone handles adversity that way.
  • Some people keep so much anger bottled up inside of them that others steer clear of them for fear of what might set them off.
  • Some people cloak themselves in a near-impenetrable coat of emotional armor in order to avoid any perception of being vulnerable.
  • Some people obsess about all the wrongs that have been perpetrated on them.
  • Some people refuse to own the blame for their misdeeds.
A person who awakens every morning with a smile on his face is not necessarily a Pollyanna. Instead, that person may have enough self confidence to embrace life and all the opportunities that come with the dawn of a new day. As Auntie Mame used to insist, "Life is a banquet and most poor sons of bitches are starving to death!"

The bottom line is that people are attracted to confidence. Perhaps no one expresses her self confidence better than Linda Low (Nancy Kwan) in this song from Rodgers & Hammerstein's 1958 musical, Flower Drum Song.

Getting to the point where one continues to have a positive outlook on life is not always easy. Often, one has to overcome a basic fear of change. Sometimes one has to conquer deep-seated insecurities -- as seen in two new movies that will be screened at the 2009 Mill Valley Film Festival as well as in a beloved -- and very old-fashioned -- Broadway musical.

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In Reach For Me, the audience's first impression of 73-year-old Alvin (Seymour Cassel) is not a very pleasant one. A severely dysfunctional patient at a ritzy hospice facility, Alvin is a macho pig who has turned into a nasty old coot. Even with a limited window of time in front of him, he remains a bitter, self-centered prick whose abrasive personality is often made worse by his fears.

There are solid reasons for Alvin's unhappiness. The ghost of his deceased wife Nell (Charlene Blaine) frequently shows up for imaginary visits to criticize him for his selfishness. Nell, who committed suicide on their 12th wedding anniversary by swallowing a bullet, also likes to blow cigarette smoke in Alvin's face to remind him of just how unpleasant their marriage really was. Meanwhile, Alvin's hospice roommate Elliott (Larry Hankin) -- who might just be the closest thing Alvin has ever had to a friend -- has just died.

Alvin is not a happy camper.

Evelyn, the floor nurse (Alfre Woodard) has had to remind him that he's not allowed to grope the female help. Nathanial, the gay orderly (LeVar Burton), is too busy listening to music or painting his own toenails to care about Alvin's miserable personality. Other hospice residents have heard enough stories about Alvin's angry outbursts to steer clear of him.

Alvin's new roommate, 25-year-old Kevin (Johnny Whitworth), is a handsome young man with a beautiful and devoted girlfriend (Lacey Chabert) who, as a third grade teacher, knows how to use a sense of fantasy to get through tough times. Whether Sarah is teasing Kevin with sexual innuendo as she readjusts the line to his colostomy bag or insisting that Kevin smell the Italian food that is too spicy for him to eat -- so they can at least imagine themselves to be sharing a dinner from a patio overlooking the Mediterranean -- Alvin wants none of it.

Written by Michael Adams and directed by LeVar Burton, Reach For Me feels like a made-for-television movie about how newfound sex and love can help hospice patients cope with the process of dying. Once Alvin changes his tune and tries to build some memories of which he can be proud, he even starts chasing after Valerie (Adrienne Barbeau), a cancer patient who must wear a wig because of her hair loss. When Alvin gets up the courage to peek at Valerie in the shower, she turns around to defiantly show him what her body looks like after having lost her left breast to a mastectomy.

There are times when Reach For Me feels clumsy, manipulative, and a bit too contrived. However, this film is dealing with characters who are in a great deal of emotional as well as physical pain -- people who know that death is just around the corner.

The contrast between Alvin's initially bile-ridden personality and Kevin's willingness to make the best of his terminal situation offers a stark reminder of what can be accomplished with a different outlook on one's [albeit limited] future and a rich fantasy life. I especially liked Johnny Whitworth's Kevin and Lacey Chabert's Sarah. Here's the trailer:

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Written and directed by Sebastian Silva, The Maid (La Nana), deals with a different kind of introvert. For 23 years, Raquel (Catalina Saavedra) has been the family maid for Pilar (Claudia Celedon), Mundo (Alejandro Goic) and their three children: Lucas (Agustin Silva), Camila (Andrea Garcia-Huidobro), and Tomas (Darok Orellana). Although she feels herself to be a genuine part of this affluent Chilean household -- and believes that Pilar's children really do love her -- Raquel's dysfunctional behavior can sometimes cause problems.
  • Ever the dutiful maid, she has complained to Pilar and Mundo about having to clean and replace Lucas' bedsheets every day because of his obsession with masturbating.
  • Because Raquel hides the children's snacks under the bed in her "off-limits" room, Camila is convinced that Raquel hates her.
  • Mundo depends on Raquel to cover for him when he secretly heads for the golf course in mid-day.
  • Pilar's mother (Delfina Guzman) has little patience with maids who dare to display their emotions or any signs of independence.
When the strain of keeping up with her job catches up with Raquel and she faints on the stairs, Pilar decides to hire another maid who can take some of the housework off Raquel's hands. Her hope is that Raquel can feel better if she is only asked to concentrate on caring for the children.

Despite the best of intentions, a control freak like Raquel can sense a threat to her livelihood. She doesn't waste any time before starting to torture the first new applicant. Mercedes (Mercedes Villanueva) continually finds herself getting locked out of the house and treated like dirt by Raquel. After Mercedes quits, Pilar's mother decides to send in her own maid, Sonia (Anita Reeves), who is almost as formidable a battle axe as her employer.

After a knock-down, drag-out fight with Sonia, Raquel's triumph is short-lived. Soon she collapses and is taken to the hospital. Pilar's newest hire is more sensitive, less ego-driven, and knows how to have a life.

Recognizing the mountain of hurt and insecurity that is eating away at Raquel, Lucy (Mariana Loyola) slowly works to break down the proud and stubborn maid's defenses. Once the two maids start to enjoy each other's company, Lucy even invites Raquel to spend Christmas with her family -- where her uncle Eric (Luis Dubo) promptly takes Raquel to bed.

An entertaining film, The Maid shows how, once coaxed from a shell of insecurity and bitterness, even a depressed and dysfunctional introvert like Raquel can blossom. Here's the trailer:

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No one would ever have called Perle Mesta an introvert. A popular Washington socialite, she served as the United States Ambassador to Luxembourg from 1949 to 1953. If a problem arose, she could probably throw a party which could thaw the ice. With a direct line to President Harry Truman, she was known to one and all in the nation's capital as "The hostess with the mostes."

Mesta had a key ingredient to making people happy: a positive attitude and a can-do personality. Lloyd Price's R&B hit perfectly describes her assets:

When songwriter Irving Berlin teamed up with Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse to create Call Me Madam as a new vehicle for the great Ethel Merman, the result was a match made in heaven. The show opened at New York's Imperial Theater on October 12, 1950 and ran for 644 performances. The national tour starred a young Elaine Stritch.

Call Me Madam is currently receiving a top-notch revival from the folks at 42nd Street Moon with Klea Blackhurst starring as Sally Adams, Rob Hatzenbeller as Cosmo Constantine, Peter Budinger as Sebastian Sebastian, Gabriel Grilli as Pemberton Maxwell and Charlie Levy as Kenneth Gibson. Under Dyan McBride's deft direction, strong cameos came from Scarlett Hepworth (doubling as Republican Congresswoman Wilkins and Lichtenberg's Grand Duchess Sophie) and Giana DeGeiso as Princess Maria.

Klea Blackhurst as Sally Adams (Photo by: David Allen)

As with many musicals that were created for Ethel Merman, the show is crafted around a performer with a strong personality. Klea Blackhurst (who actually sang selections from the show at a concert in Luxembourg two years ago) displayed a combination of comic surety and vocal confidence that has been sorely missing from the musical stage.

Rob Hatzenbeller, Giana DeGeiso, and Klea Blackhurst
(Photo by: David Allen)

As one listens to Berlin's merry score, one is struck by how fresh it sounds and how much Berlin's music makes one long for the days when a Broadway show could boast a slew of "toe-tapping" songs (it's hard to resist the lilting charm of "Dance To The Music of the Ocarina"). While Berlin's songs may not be accompanied by a heavy rock beat, they communicate so much joy, happiness, optimism, and unabashed sentimentality that their sheer exuberance has an intoxicating effect on the audience (it's interesting to note that, between his scores for 1946's Annie Get Your Gun and 1950's Call Me Madam, Berlin had 11 hit songs become national standards).

While Call Me Madam mocked Washington political circles (one female representative always introduces herself by saying "I'm the Republican!"), it was chock full of great songs such as "The Hostess With The Mostes' on the Ball," "Marrying For Love," "The Best Thing For You (Would Be Me)," It's A Lovely Day Today, and the show's biggest hit, You're Just In Love. One of the funniest (although less popular) songs from the show can be heard in this clip from the film version, with Merman explaining America's foreign aid policy to George Sanders.

The preview performance I attended was also billed as a "Luxembourg Gala." Hosted by the Honorable Georges Faber, Consul General of Luxembourg (who still has fond memories of Ambassador Mesta's visits to his country), the Consul General has mounted an impressive display about Perle Mesta in the theater's lobby. The show continues through October 18th at the Eureka Theatre. You can order tickets here.

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