Thursday, May 26, 2011

When Rapture is Not Enough

Front-page headline in today’s Financial Times: “Obama’s Speech in Westminster Affirms the Special Relationship, but Fails to Raise the Roof.”

Now, as we all know, Barack Obama is the very best orator we Americans have. If he can’t raise the roof, who can?

Benjamin Netanyahu can. Here’s yesterday’s New York Times, reporting on the Israeli Prime Minister’s speech before a joint session of the U.S. Congress: “Mr. Netanyahu received so many standing ovations that at times it seemed that the lawmakers were listening to his speech standing up.” It was, according to the Financial Times, “a rapturously received address.”

Talk about raising the roof! Mr. Netanyahu obviously is even a better speechifier that Mr. Obama, whose State of the Union address was received politely, at times even enthusiastically, but the adverb “rapturously” does not spring to mind.

How does Israel’s Prime Minister elicit the kind of rapture that no American politician, no business leader, no religious leader, not even the “American Idol” winner, can hope for? In fact, it is a good bet that Mr. Netanyahu himself would not encounter such an adoring audience in Israel. But Washington and Mr. Netanyahu were made for each other. The Times lets us in on his secret: “The lawmakers appeared eager to demonstrate their support for Israel as part of an effort to receive backing from one of the country’s most powerful constituencies, American Jews.”

So politicians will trade rapture for dollars; there is nothing new about that. We will survive the sight of members of Congress pandering to the Israeli lobby, or to any lobby that has enough power and money.

The real loser in all this is Israel. The take-away from this week’s events is that the U.S. has such a special relationship with Israel (much deeper that our special relationship with Britain, for instance) that we can no longer act as a credibly honest broker between Israel and Palestine. The peace talks, insofar as America is concerned, are dead. That much must be obvious to the entire Arab world, as it was to George Mitchell, who threw in the towel recently. Israel’s success in Washington comes at a price, and the price is increasing isolation on the world stage. A rapturous U.S. Congress is not enough.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Americanization of Emily

Julie Andrews says that of all the movies she’s made, The Americanization of Emily is her favorite. So says James Garner, her co-star. So says Arthur Hiller, who directed. Why has this movie, released in 1964, captivated so many people who know so much about movies?

There are many reasons, but at the top of the list must be the literary, highly pungent script of Paddy Chayefsky. Producer Martin Ransohoff spotted the William Bradford Huie novel in 1959. The book tells of a romance between an Admiral’s aide (the dust cover says it’s “the further adventures of Lieutenant-Commander James Monroe Madison of The Revolt of Mamie Stover”) and a British young woman in WW2 London, and Ransohoff optioned it, thinking it might make a pleasant enough romantic comedy. In time, William Holden was penciled in as the hero, and James Garner was slated to play Bus, Madison’s sidekick. Ransohoff’s choice to direct was William Wyler.

Then Wyler and Holden pulled out, Arthur Hiller was named director, Garner was given the lead, and, most importantly, Paddy Chayefsky was asked to write the screenplay. And what a screenplay he created! The book is a fairly routine love story, with the climactic D-Day invasion the only memorable action. Commander Madison is a writer whose skills as a procurer (of booze and broads, mostly) for Navy brass have landed him in the lap of luxury in London. Emily Barham is a volunteer driver attached to Madison’s unit. Madison and Barham fall in love and, after he makes a movie of the D-Day landing, live happily ever after. End of story.

Enter Paddy Chayefsky. He is not interested in telling a typical Doris Day/Rock Hudson love story. In his hands, Commander (now Charles) Madison is a practicing coward, whose overriding ambition is not to get killed in the war, and whose service as a valued “dog-robber” seems to guarantee survival. Emily Barham, who has lost a father, a husband, and a brother to war, is a Yank-hating moralist, who buys into the nobility of a hero’s death.

This is all Chayefsky. In the book, Madison is as patriotic as the next man, and when the Admiral orders him to film the invasion, he gets a camera crew and obediently joins the invasion fleet.

In the movie, Chayefsky writes a sparkling scene in which Madison and Emily’s mother spar over the reality of war and the folly of glamorizing it. In that one scene, Madison expresses his entire philosophy of life, sacrifice, and honor, and he makes his entire pursuit of survival sound sensible and almost noble. It is an absolutely indispensable scene – and yet, in the book, Ms. Barham never appears, and there is not an iota of dialogue about these subjects.

One shouldn’t be too hard on the book’s author. He was simply writing a different story, a much simpler story. Yet if the screenplay followed the book’s outline, the movie would have been forgotten long ago.

Arthur Hiller was a rookie Hollywood director in 1963, when he began shooting Emily. He would later direct some good movies, like The In-Laws, The Hospital, and Plaza Suite, but nothing, in his mind, to compare with Emily. Julie Andrews, of course, is everybody’s sweetheart no matter what she does, but she, too, singles out this movie as her best. And James Garner is an absolutely perfect Charlie Madison. The rest of the cast is solid: Joyce Grenfell as the dotty mother, Melvyn Douglas as the Admiral, and James Coburn as Bus. There is practically no music in the film other than the song Emily, which was ineligible for an Oscar because the lyrics were never sung.

Hard as it is to believe, The Americanization of Emily was made almost a half century ago. But it is still immensely enjoyable, and Paddy Chayefsky’s message still makes sense today.

Three collections of these blogs are available at They are, in chronological order, Searching for Joan Leslie, Lines from the Beachcomber, and Tides in the Affairs of Men.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Dancing on Graves

There was widespread jubilation in the U.S. at news that Osama Bin Laden had been killed. One can certainly understand satisfaction, especially on the part of relatives of those killed in the 9-11 attack. But jubilation? One would have hoped that Americans would temper their celebration with the realization that a martyr has been created and vengeance is in the air. Satisfaction, certainly. Dancing on the graves? I don’t think so.

The day before, it was announced that NATO air strikes on Tripoli had killed Col. Qadaffi’s youngest son. While NATO people denied that “protecting civilians” has expanded to “regime change,” Senator McCain, said that if Col Qadaffi were to be killed, “that would be fine.”

The taste of blood is spreading, and it is no time to be a leader of a country in NATO’s gunsights. I am reading The Tourist, a novel about a CIA unit (the Tourists) that exists to eliminate people deemed worthy of elimination. The book was written by Olen Steinhauer, who lives in Budapest (ex-Virginia) and obviously knows the intelligence world inside out. As described by Steinhauer, it is a world totally devoid of morality, sentiment, or what we think of as human instincts. It is easy to imagine a tourist making his way through the streets of Tripoli or Islamabad or Damascus or Tangier, a Glock and a fake passport in his pocket, no expression on his face, intent on offing a head of government or a minister or just someone who knows too much. The book is chilling in light of recent events, as you will probably see on the big screen. (George Clooney has optioned the book.)

I suppose someone has to do the dirty work, and you don’t want to see how sausages are made, but neither do you want to take the inspiring principles that embellish President Obama’s rhetoric too literally, because Washington is one big sausage factory.