Friday, March 30, 2012

Game Change

Ed Harris and Julianne Moore as McCain and Palin in Game Change

The HBO-produced adaptation of Mark Halperin and John Heilemann’s best-selling 2009 book, Game Change centers on the John McCain-Sarah Palin part of the ticket for the 2008 Presidential election.  While the book looked at Clinton and Obama’s dust-up over the Democratic nomination as well as McCain’s eventual fight for the vote against Obama, the film adaptation focuses on the selection and requisite care and feeding of the star personality who became Sarah Palin.

Impersonated with empathetic, uncanny likeness by Julianne Moore, Palin appears in Danny Strong’s script just as she did in Halperin and Heilemann’s book—as an ignorant, child-like woman thrust into the national limelight way too fast, way too soon, and way too recklessly by a campaign trying to “do something bold” to shift attention from Obama’s meteoric rise in popular favor.

With a breezy, rather snarky tone, the book doesn’t waste time lambasting McCain staffers for their lightly vetted choice of the then barely known governor from Alaska.  Based on the numbers game that now determines elections, the McCain campaign realizes that they’ll lose if they can’t close the gender gap that’s opened in the polls.

Although McCain is intent on selecting Joe Lieberman as his “bold choice” for a running mate, to demonstrate that bipartisanship is possible on a presidential ticket, Lieberman’s pro-choice reputation makes him a bad pick for holding onto the far Right voters who are now necessary to secure the Republican base.  (Game Change takes place in 2008.  The present contest for the Republican nomination demonstrates how much farther the extreme Right has thrust itself into the party.)

When Rick Davis (Peter MacNicol), McCain’s national campaign manager, stumbles across a YouTube video of Palin chatting with an interviewer, he’s captivated by her charisma, poise, and attractiveness.  The brief scene underlines that Palin’s competition wasn’t stiff; the other women Davis watches are obviously competent politicians but dreary, uninspiring (and, not insignificantly, unattractive) performers.  Game Change emphasizes that Palin is an adept political actor, following the footsteps of her hero, Ronald Reagan (who was nothing if not a consummate, Hollywood-trained matinee idol).

Davis and other McCain staffers quickly realize that Palin has much of Reagan’s magnetism, and soon, she’s on the ticket, appealing to Republican voters with her “aw shucks” performance of ordinariness.  What soon appalls the McCain campaign is how little real knowledge of the political system supports her sudden appearance in the national arena.

Where the book was a biting indictment of Palin and what it painted as her self-involved, self-aggrandizing machinations, the film adaptation, directed by Jay Roach (Recount), is in most ways kinder to the former governor.  Strong’s script underlines that she never asked for the spotlight, and was invited to take the number two spot on McCain’s ticket without being carefully vetted.

In a scene illustrating her only pre-announcement interview with Steve Schmidt (Woody Harrelson) and Mark Salter (Jamey Sheridan), McCain’s most powerful staffers, they ask questions to determine her willingness to play by McCain’s rules and espouse his views (a promise on which she ultimately reneges).  But they never dream that she can’t cite a single Supreme Court case or that she might not know what “the Fed” represents.

The film portrays the McCain campaign’s incredulity when Palin’s real deficits begin to emerge.  Attempting to prep her for debates and interviews on national television, Palin is truculent and withholding, reducing frustrated staffers to providing boilerplate answers to the questions they anticipate will be posed.

But the film suggests it’s not really Palin’s fault that she’s in way over her head.  She excelled as the governor of a small state in which she met voters at the fair with her family (represented in an early scene), and chatted with constituents one-on-one as she took her daughters on the rides.

Moore perfectly captures Palin’s folksy, somehow sincere warmth in those early pre-vp selection scenes, and demonstrates, in her first meeting with Schmidt, that Palin has more steely reserve than first appears.  Her debate prep scenes are both horrifying and pathetic, as Palin sits with a pencil and a notebook furiously scribbling down information that staffers lecture at her.  She seems a reluctant student, but one eager to prove that she can pass the course.

But she passes her way, and becomes the wrong sort of maverick in the McCain campaign.  As she gains confidence from the warm crowds she attracts at personal appearances, power begins to change Palin into a more Machiavellian operative who’s more concerned with her own image than the campaign.  But because Game Change doesn’t hold her entirely responsible for being on the ticket in the first place, even her shift into a more calculated power-grabber doesn’t read as an utter indictment.

In one of the film’s most poignant scenes, Moore-as-Palin watches Tina Fey-as-Palin re-perform on Saturday Night Live the real Sarah Palin’s devastating Katie Couric interview.  Moore’s face (as Palin) is a study as she gradually registers that Fey is making fun of her.  Alone in front of the television, Moore carefully builds Palin’s hurt resentment, as she realizes she’s being ridiculed.  The scene humanizes Palin by imagining her feelings as she watches Fey, and helps viewers understand why she soon becomes obsessed with her image and approval ratings.

Game Change also presents Palin’s family respectfully.  Todd Palin’s political peccadillos are washed with a patina of innocence, and even Bristol’s pregnancy seems like just another adolescent indiscretion.  Of course, the story picks up before their lives have been invaded by a rabid national media, but the film depicts the family as sincere and rather naïve, as wounded as Sarah by what they see as the campaign’s and the press’s betrayal.

By giving Palin’s personal life a pass, and through Moore’s remarkably sympathetic performance, Game Change’s discerning critique falls more softly on the mercurial personality quirks of a woman untested in the baiting and switching of hardball national life than it does on an expedient political system driven by television cameras and polling numbers.  The film emphasizes that Schmidt, McCain’s senior strategist, was full of hubris to think that Palin would solve the campaign’s problems, and the movie’s narrative turns mostly on his trajectory.

Played by Harrelson with a swagger that dissolves into humiliation, Game Change traces Schmidt’s horrified understanding of his mistake and the consequences it could have had for the nation had McCain been elected.  The film is bookended by scenes of Anderson Cooper interviewing Harrelson-as-Schmidt about his reflections on the 2008 election after the fact.

Schmidt deflects Cooper’s direct probing about whether Palin was truly ready to assume the presidency.  He does, however, squirm when Cooper reminds him that she was the vice presidential nominee for a candidate who was 72-years-old during the campaign and had already suffered two bouts of melanoma.  These framing interviews are juxtaposed deftly with Game Change’s scenes of Palin stumbling over basic knowledge of the American political system, which allows the film’s critique to laser in on handlers like Schmidt, for whom performance and the superficiality of capturing the camera’s attention was, for a time, more important than anything else.

Game Change chronicles Palin’s change alongside Schmidt’s.  If they start as uneasy allies, by the film’s (and the campaign’s) end, they’re adversaries.  Palin insists on giving her own concession speech the night of the election; Schmidt practically spits at her when he tells her that vice presidential candidates never give such speeches.  For Palin, unburdened by knowledge of precedent, the rules are up for grabs.

Her willingness to put her finger in the eye of Washington went on to endear Palin to Tea Party-ers looking for a heroine.  Her empty charisma and her superficial ease connecting with voters through a medium that looks intimate while it maintains a boundless distance did indeed change the game.

Frank Bruni, writing in the New York Times, published several blogs on the film that address the question of McCain’s campaign staffers’ loyalty.  Bruni argues that if the dirty laundry of necessarily brutal campaign practices is hung out publically to dry, as it is in this film, honorable potential candidates will shy from the most bruising, most prominent races.

But the confidentiality of the political process seems an already dead issue.  What Game Change underlines for me was how mercenary McCain’s male staffers were in playing to the gender gap, choosing a female vice presidential running mate not on the basis of her qualifications, but on her appearance and a charisma they thought would buy votes.

Their thoughtlessness and implicit misogyny (choose a woman, any—pretty—woman) brought the body politic the persistent problem of Sarah Palin, a woman who went on to co-opt feminism for her own selfish purposes, who continues to champion her political ignorance, and who remains the star of a fictional “Main Street” on which “ordinary” American people are white, straight, racist, homophobic, anti-choice, and proud of their political stupidity.

Game Change ends with Schmidt, Davis, and Salter drinking in a bar on election night after McCain has conceded.  They ruefully agree that McCain’s loss let them dodge the bullet that Palin as vice president would have shot into the American political system.  But the film (and the book) also lets them off the hook.  They down their drinks, shake their heads sheepishly, and go off to run other campaigns, bearing no on-going responsibility for ushering Palin so far into political power.

Scary stuff.

The Feminist Spectator

Game Change, HBO and on-demand.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Porgy and Bess

Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis as Bess and Porgy

This controversial production comes to Broadway with the baggage of both historical and contemporary critique.  First produced in the 1930s as a “folk opera” by George and Ira Gershwin, and DuBose and Dorothy Heyward, this production, directed by Diana Paulus with a revised book by Suzan-Lori Parks and Deirdre L. Murray, opened August 17, 2011, at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, where Paulus is the artistic director.

Before he’d even seen the production, Stephen Sondheim excoriated the artistic team for what he found unethical meddling with the Gershwin’s original work.  But as Hilton Als wrote in a lovely background piece and review for The New Yorker, the “original” was full of racism, an artifact of a moment in theatre history when white people represented their skewed vision of people of color for other white people.  Why in the world would anyone want to preserve such original intentions for a 21st century audience?

More than a bit of sexism surfaced in Sondheim’s argument, too.  Here’s a young white woman director and two talented women artists of color engaging one of famous narratives of American opera and theatre, all with an eye to renovating the central character of Bess, the drug-addicted woman whose desires drive this revision’s plot.  Given this refocusing, Sondheim’s unfortunate objections might derive from his personal taste and respect for some artists over others, as well as from his professional investments in preserving the sanctity of the original text.

The Sondheim kerfuffle sent the production to Broadway on a cloud of critique, but from my perspective, this Porgy and Bess provides a transformative theatre experience.  With a simple set by the talented Riccardo Hernandez; unobtrusive but evocative choreography by Ronald K. Brown; a superb ensemble, each one of whom seems to follow his or her own grounded and nuanced narrative arc; and stage pictures that seem organic instead of posed, the production offers a thrilling experience at the theatre.

Hernandez creates down at the heels Catfish Row, in Charleston, South Carolina, with a one-dimensional curvilinear back drop, all corrugated tin and wooden window frames through which light (designed by Christopher Akerlind) projects in geometric patterns that change with the time of the day.  A simple working water pump establishes the outdoor scenes, and performers bring on wooden chairs and crates to give the stage picture levels and textures.

Yet with so few props and such a schematic set, Paulus and her actors create a whole world, an African American community of fishermen and washerwomen, of tinkerers and tradespeople, of grifters and preachers, and of good people and bad.  The ensemble moves constantly, providing a living backdrop to the story of Bess and Porgy’s doomed relationship.

Paulus draws attention to her stars through their costumes.  Bess (the sublime Audra McDonald) wears a beautiful, bold red dress when she arrives in Catfish Row on the arm of her evil lover/procurer, Crown (Phillip Boykin).  Costume designer ESosa leaves McDonald’s arms bare and her breasts heaving over the bodice, accentuating her figure with a high slit up the side and barely supportive straps.  Porgy (Norm Lewis) wears layered, dirty but pure white shirts, which help him stand out among the rest.

Bess's red dress makes her the focus of the stage picture

Although the careful design and direction lets spectators track the show’s central couple, Paulus embeds Porgy and Bess’s story within a lively, close-knit neighborhood both visually and narratively.  Theirs isn’t a singular story, but a relationship aided and abetted by a community that’s very protective of its “crippled” friend.

Porgy, hobbled from birth, walks with a stick and a limp, his hips extended awkwardly and his left leg twisted impossibly.  His disability makes it difficult for him to maneuver more than a few steps without being offered a seat by one of his neighbors.  But Lewis plays Porgy with quiet dignity, not an ounce of self-pity, and a sexy magnetism that makes him the production’s emotional core.

Shortly after he and Bess arrive at Catfish Row, Crown murders one of the community’s men.  To avoid prison, Crown hides out on an island off the coast of Charleston while Bess slowly, hesitantly begins to embed herself in the domestic life of Catfish Row, forming an awkward relationship with Porgy.  When she joins her new neighbors for a picnic on the island where Crown happens to be hiding, and dallies behind when the others board the boat for home, Crown accosts Bess, insisting that she’s still his woman and that he’ll come for her once he thinks it’s safe.

Boykin as Crown with McDonald as Bess

In a scene that could easily be played as a rape, Paulus’s direction and McDonald’s terrific acting indicate that although his physical force makes it difficult for Bess to resist Crown, she’s also attracted by his sexual clarity.  Her desire confuses Bess.  In this production, it’s not her drug addiction that’s her Achilles heel, though that weakness appears at key moments to throw her integrity into doubt.  But it’s Bess’s deep sexuality, her own desire, by which she’s ultimately undone.

In Catfish Row, women are supposed to channel their sexuality into marriage and child-rearing.  The upstanding, loving couple Jake (Joshua Henry) and Clara (Nikki Renée Daniels) represent the ideal relationship, one to which Bess knows she should aspire but can’t quite figure.

Henry and Daniels as Jake and Clara

She holds Jake and Clara’s new-born baby with great wonder and tenderness, staring into its face as though it holds a secret she wishes she could fathom.  And when the couple dies in the hurricane that rocks Catfish Row, Bess insists that their baby now belongs to her.  But exactly this contained and proper domesticity eludes Bess, however truly happy she seems in Porgy’s embrace.

Bess experimenting with domesticity

Although Porgy repeatedly scoffs that “no cripple can hold Bess,” he never really seems to believe it, because the character’s goodness radiates from Lewis’s presence whether or not he’s speaking.  Lewis’s is a smart, clear, intensely human performance, in which the typical pitfalls of the “crippled” character redeeming the “abled” through his unsullied humanity admittedly is present, but not as salient as it might be.  In this revision, his character feels fuller and more fleshed out, and in fact, Porgy doesn’t ever really redeem Bess.  The typical trope is foiled in ways that help play against the stereotype.

Porgy loves and protects Bess, and finally finds his manhood by killing Crown, who continues to appear in their lives like a demon that just won’t die.  After Porgy stabs Crown to death in a stage fight in which they struggle on the ground, the only level at which Porgy might have a chance to even the odds against Crown, Porgy struggles to stand and declares that he’s now a man.

It’s unfortunate that the disabled Porgy distinguishes himself through violence, and that his gentler, more domestic masculinity is pitted against Crown’s volatile force in the first place.  Boykin, as Crown, is a muscular, large, dark-skinned African American man, who presents the character in all his brutal sexuality and contrasts starkly with Porgy’s less stable physical presence.

Even after Porgy kills Crown, theoretically freeing her from the violent man’s hold, Bess is seduced by Sporting Life (played by David Alan Grier as a kind of Ben Vereen-as-the-Leading-Player-in-Pippin spin-off), who tells her that Porgy will be imprisoned for life and that she belongs in a big city.  Sporting Life smoothly urges her toward the boat that’s leaving soon for New York (in another of the musical’s many numbers that became standards in the American repertoire).

David Alan Grier as Sporting Life

Played by the truly astounding McDonald, Bess’s desires muddle her, pulling her from one choice to the contradictory next.  She clearly feels safe with Porgy, but her blazing sexual heat draws her to danger and to a larger palette on which to paint herself.

Bess never looks quite comfortable in the cotton shifts in muted prints and soft fabrics that signal her acceptance into the quotidian life of Catfish Row.  The image of her lush body presenting itself draped in red in those first scenes always haunts her attempt to be just one of the women, to domesticate herself for her own safety and acceptance.

Nonetheless, this production doesn’t demonize Bess and neither does it leave Porgy broken by her disappearance at the end.  He decides he’ll follow Bess to New York to win her back.

What will happen after is anyone’s guess, but that future isn’t as important as knowing that both Porgy and Bess have opted to move out into a larger world, one less predictable, perhaps, one less full of love and care and fellow-feeling than the landscape of Catfish Row, but one in which they can find bigger, more ennobled versions of themselves in which to live.

That, in itself, is an achievement.

The Feminist Spectator

Porgyand Bess, Richard Rodgers Theatre, Broadway.

Sunday, March 11, 2012


Cynthia Nixon on Broadway as Vivian Bearing in Margaret Edson's Wit

Cynthia Nixon, playing the lead in the Broadway revival of Margaret Edson’s play, Wit, does a heroic job putting her own mark against Kathleen Chalfant’s signature performance as the dying Vivian Bearing, the professor and scholar who meets the only fight she can’t win in her struggle with ovarian cancer.

In fact, by the time her cancer is diagnosed, Prof. Bearing is as good as dead.  At stage four, the cancer is already metastasizing and her treatment will mostly benefit science rather than herself.  But in perhaps her one selfless choice, according to a script that finds its heroine mostly distasteful, Vivian signs up to undergo a rigorous eight-month treatment that doesn’t save her body, but in most ways saves her soul.

Bearing is hardly a sympathetic character.  By acquiescing to be the subject of research instead of a researcher herself, she learns that there’s more to life than finding new knowledge.  The long hospital stay that ends her life is her last lesson in how to have the relationships that she regularly denied herself, devoting her time to the obscure and difficult sonnets of John Donne instead.

Edson’s play, which won the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, wants to have it both ways.  It indicts a medical establishment that sacrifices the humanity of its patients to its quest for their cure, but at same time indicts its patient, who’s devoted her own life to a similar kind of exacting and dehumanizing (at least in Edson’s version) research.

Chalfant played this sacrificial character with a dignity and nuance that made her a truly tragic figure.  Vivian learns too late in her life that she can relate to people instead of just teaching them, and that human feelings are more ennobled by living them than by engaging them on the page.

Publicity material of Kathleen Chalfant in the 1998 Off-Broadway production

Through direct address to the audience from her hospital bed, Vivian lays out the story of her life and her sudden illness, describing how her father rewarded her zeal for reading, and how her own intellectually significant female professor inspired her to ever better research and writing.  Her tone is mordant and a bit self-deprecating, as though she’s embarrassed to think back on her trajectory from its sorry end.

In the right hands, Vivian can be an engaging and self-aware narrator of her life’s excesses and can suggest that hers are just a different variation on those we all suffer.  But as directed for laughs by Lynne Meadow, Nixon’s Vivian is a bit strident, her humor too forced and ironic, until the morphine finally calms her down toward the play’s end.  She finds her humanity just as the medical establishment reaches the epitome of its objectification of her body.  But Vivian is such an unlikable character until then that it’s hard to see her story as anything but a joke at the expense of a smart woman who’s happily chosen to devote her life to her work, however esoteric.

Prof. Bearing's work is played as too much of a joke in this production

Nixon is a smart performer, and emotionally enough in tune with the role that she does strike nice chords of sympathy with Prof. Bearing.  And clearly the cancer narrative appeals to her.  At a moment when so many women (including Nixon, who’s a survivor) are diagnosed with breast, ovarian, and other cancers, a play that addresses their situation with the frankness of Wit is very welcome on Broadway.

It’s just too bad that Edson asks us to think only about how little agency women have in their own medical care.  That, perhaps, marks her play's age—witness the recent uproar over the lack of women testifying before Congress about their proposed legislation on women’s reproductive health, which might indicate how fed up women have become with just the kind of objectification and powerlessness that Edson’s play indicts.  But a play that also allows audiences to laugh at the righteous pursuit of a life of the mind that Vivian Bearing’s career represents compromises its otherwise feminist intent.

In this Broadway revival, Suzanne Bertish brings terrific verve to her role as Vivian’s inspiring professor.  She relishes the knowledge she imparts to her pupil, and then demonstrates utmost compassion when she finds Vivian again at the end of her life.  When she crawls into Vivian’s hospital bed to read to her former star student, the moment is wrenching, not just because all she has at hand to read aloud is a children’s book she recently shared with her grandson, but because she loves and respects Vivian for who she is.

The professor's compassion at the end bears no moral judgment, which is so palpable in the rest of the play.  She brings only a clear love and felt presence that finally ushers Vivian out of her life and into a kind of peace.

This production ends as the original did, with Vivian’s resurrection of sorts after the death that finally, supposedly, frees her from physical and spiritual pain.  Downstage right, Nixon unfolds from an embryonic ball of limbs and flesh into a triumphal, extended human “V,” naked and, I suppose, liberated.

The moment is a bit too stark for my taste and too symbolic of the empty freedom that Vivian’s release into what Donne called the “pause” that is death brings.  She holds her arms above her head in a peculiar, Pyrrhic victory.  But her naked body seems also to signal how she sacrificed her physical desire for her intellectual ambitions.  It’s the wrong kind of triumph to celebrate, and leaves the play rather hollow at the end.

Nonetheless, it’s good to see Nixon claiming Broadway real estate to perform a serious play written by a woman.  Edson never wrote another play after Wit, and still insists she has no intention of returning to the form.  She continues to teach at an elementary school in Atlanta; Wit was the one dramatic story she wanted to tell.

Given new oncology protocols, the play feels dated, though its critique of medicine’s essential inhumanity remains sadly relevant.  Its portrait of a female professor as brittle and emotionally stunted still smarts.

When do we get to see a story about a smart, talented woman intellectual who’s not punished by a fatal disease?  These stories have been tiresome since Wit was first produced in New York in the ‘90s.

I’m always glad when work by and starring talented women is visible in public forums, but how I wish we could hear stories that celebrate instead of implicitly denigrate their accomplishments, and that let them thrive instead of fade.

The Feminist Spectator

Wit, on Broadway through March 17th.