Friday, November 23, 2012

Spielberg's "Lincoln"

By Mary Claire Kendall

 Mary Todd Lincoln
The earliest known daguerreotype of her,
taken c.1864 by Nicholas H. Shepherd.
Source: Roger Norton Photo Gallery

Steven Spielberg’s film Lincoln is superb.

There is just one VERY MAJOR FLAW: Sally Field, age 66, played Mary Todd Lincoln, age 46, and it didn't work—at all. Field looks every bit her 65 years (age when filming), which is not a bad thing, except when you are playing a 46 year old: It’s simply not believable that she could be the mother of then ten year old Tad or the wife/lover of the then 55/56 year old president—exactly Daniel Day-Lewis’  age—when the war was winding down and he was working to pass the Thirteenth Amendment in the U.S. House of Representatives. 
Every time Field was part of a scene I found myself going, eh gad. 

Why Spielberg made this most unfortunate casting decision is a mystery. The only thing I can figure out is he thought it would work because Lincoln had aged 10 years by that time. But, having a wife who matched her real age would have had the effect of making Lincoln look older, which is the whole point: the war had been hell and his aged face showed it. 

Still of Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln. Credit: DreamWorks.

Mary Claire Kendall is a Washington-based writer. She writes a regular column for, most recently “Doolittle’s Raiders And The Miracle That Saved Them.”

Mary Claire Kendall

Monday, April 9, 2012

HBO Film Reveals the Power of Cloistered Life: In a Word—“Love”

By Mary Claire Kendall 

Originally published in The Wanderer

Dolores Hart and Elvis Presley in Loving You (1957).
Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures
“How do you explain love?” Mother Dolores Hart asks in HBO’s Oscar-nominated film, God Is the Bigger Elvis, premiering on Holy Thursday.*  

Directed by Rebecca Cammisa, this 40-minute documentary answers the question as it artfully describes, through the medium Hart mastered, cloistered life at the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Connecticut—the only enclosed Benedictine monastery and working farm in the United States.  As Mother Prioress, Hart leads the community of 38 that follows the strict Benedictine schedule of work and prayer.

Much of the story is told through the prism of Mother Dolores’ life, which she relates with grace, charm and wit.

The film dramatically opens with Elvis singing “Young Dreams” to Dolores Hart in Loving You (1958).  “I often wonder,” Mother Dolores reflects, “why the Lord gave me such an opportunity to audition with Elvis… And, I just can’t believe I got the part.”  Two years later, while starring on Broadway, a friend introduced her to the Abbey. Her life was never the same.

“I never felt that I was leaving Hollywood,” she says. “The Abbey was like a grace of God that entered my life… totally unexpected…  God was… the bigger Elvis.”

Tackling a batch of letters with her loyal parakeet Toby by her side, she reads one from an “adorable” fan, who enthuses she and Elvis were his favorites. “What are you doing now?” he ends, eliciting a hearty laugh, a pause and, another hearty laugh. 

“I was 19 and just on the threshold of the biggest career that you could ever have,” she comments. “Hal Wallis offered me a seven year contract.”

When a visitor tells of his distress over a missing loved one, Mother Dolores promises she will pray. She comments afterwards, “My role is to help a person discover you can always find hope and if you can find hope you might find faith.”

“My early life,” she reflects, was “most unstable”—her grandmother counseled her teen parents to get an abortion. But, this very instability nurtured her vocation as she realized, “The stability factor had to come within myself.”

In Hollywood, she rose every morning at 6 a.m. whether or not she was working, to go to mass. 

“Every role I got I prayed for.”

While Hart was pursuing her career, the reverend mother clarified for her that “chastity doesn’t mean that you don’t appreciate what God created. Chastity says use it well,” which gave her “a sense of peace” -- and a desire to return to the abbey.

Besides Elvis, she was starring opposite heartthrobs like Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, and Warren Beatty, who wanted to open her contract to MGM, raising her value to $1 million.

“But… in the back of my mind,” she says, “I was thinking about going back to Regina Laudis… (to have) true communion with God.  And, eternal love is the mystery that I found here.”

Poignant testimony from the others, including Sr. John Mary—once a powerful executive in politics then advertising who coped by using alcohol and drugs—helps complete the picture and explain the mystery of eternal love.

“Someone described a monastery as a powerhouse of prayer,” she says. “We’re carrying a lot for people and you make a decision here to surrender your life to God…This is the only place I could see myself being because this is where it’s at.” Said like the advertising pro she is.

It’s also a bed of roses—complete with thorns. 

After entering the Abbey in June 1963, wearing a wedding gown, Mother Dolores thought it would be nirvana. Instead, “The first night I felt like I had jumped off a 20-story building and landed flat on my butt. I had no idea it was going to mean singing seven times a day, working in the garden, 10 people in one bathroom, the sternness.”

It didn’t help that the other nuns didn’t give “the actress” a month.  But, the actress fought back, apparently with salty words.  As her former fiancé notes, “She wanted to be married to God.”

“In monastic life,” notes Sister John Mary, “there is no way out... Mother Prioress describes it as being skinned alive.”

But, as the film portrays, she deploys plenty of wisdom and inventiveness to ease the way, as two touching vignettes—one involving a Llama, another, a heart-to-heart talk—reveal.  She has also artfully involved the community, as more clips show, helping each discover their own unique calling. 

And, now, through this well-done HBO documentary, she’s involving Hollywood, to which she returned this year for the Oscars.  If she helped lead the late great Patricia Neal, in her darkest days, to God (a story the film omits), it’s a good bet more miracles will follow.  After 49 years of loving God, she’s certainly stored up the requisite spiritual wealth for that production.

*All HBO playdates and times: April 5 (8-8:40 p.m.) 8 (4 p.m.) 10 (11:15 a.m.), 13 (4:30 p.m.), 14 (9:45 a.m.) and 19 (2:45 p.m.)

Note: The Abbey of Regina Laudis is currently  conducting a capital fundraising campaign. If you wish to contribute, 

Saturday, March 31, 2012

What Whitney Houston's Death Tells Us About Female Stars of Yesteryear

By Mary Claire Kendall
Whitney Houston performs at the O2 Arena on April 25, 2010 in London, England. 
(Photo by Samir Hussein/Getty Images) 

Whitney Houston seemingly had it all—beauty, poise, charm and most of all that voice penetrating the depths of one’s soul—America’s soul.

Why is it, then, that this alpha female with epic talent lost it all at such a young age?

It will take months, even years, to wrap our minds around this tragedy. But, by putting her life and death into the historical context of stars going back to Hollywood’s inception, the picture becomes a little clearer.

Women of the “Golden Age of Film” (1912-1962) maintained an inner strength that stars like Houston in the late 20th/early 21st century lost because our culture is ailing. While claiming to uphold and reaffirm women, it ends up destroying that very something that’s the source of a woman’s strength. Losing that essence, Houston was seemingly reaching for a chemical substitute.

Of course, substance abuse has always plagued Hollywood. Often, the greater the artistry the more susceptible the artist to the chemical siren call. Whitney had high anxiety—never thought she was good enough—and alcohol and drugs helped alleviate this stress.

The habit intensified after she filmed The Bodyguard, conspiring, along with cigarettes, to destroy her voice. Similarly, Judy Garland, dead at age 47, suffered anxiety—didn’t think her voice was that good either—and sought refuge in alcohol and drugs. (Admittedly, MGM shares some credit, feeding her drugs to stay thin, sleep, wake up, stay energized.)

Marilyn Monroe and Margaret Sullavan, too, both died too young—at ages 36 and 50, respectively—of drug overdoses. And, Mabel Normand—who made films with Mack Sennett (famous for The Keystone Cops), directing a young Charlie Chaplin—became addicted to Roaring 20s all-night partying drenched with alcohol and cocaine. Her world came crashing down along with the stock market; she was dead at age 34.

Still, there’s a palpable difference in the lives of Hollywood women, now and then.

Mary Pickford, who dominated the silent film era, for whom the term “star” was coined, had her own studio at Paramount Pictures, co-founded Universal Pictures and practically invented the business framework under which Hollywood still operates.

Pickford started working at age 6 after her father’s untimely death plunged the family into poverty. She never thought of herself as a woman or a man, just as a competent individual, trying to survive, working to be her best—in a cultural milieu that from today’s perspective almost seems like a Garden of Eden.

But, even in the Garden of Eden, there was the battle of the sexes. In Hollywood it’s as fierce as ever. Though women were foundational to Hollywood’s establishment, when the business became so glamorous and financially rewarding, the men simply took over.

Pickford suffered a double blow given the difficult transition from silent film, a heart-rending reality brilliantly captured in this year’s critical favorite The Artist. “… (J)ust as she was the first great star to be created by film, she was the first great ‘has been’ to be created by film. And everyone watched it.

There was no privacy there,” Eileen Whitfield, author of Pickford: The Woman Who Made Hollywood, told American Experience. More than the loss of her career, she was publicly humiliated when her beloved husband DouglasFairbanks, Jr. fled, landing in the arms of a woman twelve years her junior. “When a man finds himself sliding downhill,” Fairbanks said, “he should do everything to reach bottom in a hurry and pass out of the picture.”

Like her Hennessy ancestors, Mary initially sought solace in intoxicating spirits.
But, she survived—personally, marrying Buddy Rogers, and dying at age 87. 

So too did Betty Hutton, the fifth anniversary of whose death at age 86 falls on March 11—one month after Houston’s death.

Hutton’s descent from the pinnacle of her career—epitomized by her starring role in Annie Get Your Gun (1950)—was as dramatic as Houston’s. As she toldAP, twenty years after foolishly tearing up her Paramount contract, “Uppers, downers, inners, outers, I took everything I could get my hands on.” Then one night she collapsed on stage at a dinner theater outside Boston where she was reprising her Annie Oakley role.  Not exactly Broadway. She was down to 85 pounds.

Miraculously, she met this saintly priest, Fr. Peter Maguire, who just happened to be checking in his cook at the same rehab center where Hutton was recuperating.  Fr. Maguire understood all her pain—and helped her cherish just “being Betty” and discover, as she told Turner Classic Movie’s Robert Osbourne, “Christ is my heart.”

Perhaps Whitney, who also knew Christ was her heart, never found that someone who understood her pain.

But, isn’t about time, that as a culture, we try and understand that, as Hemingway told his friend A.E. Hotchner, “The worst death for anyone is to lose the center of his being, the thing he really is… Whether by choice or by fate, to retire from what you do—and what you do makes you what you are—is to back up into the grave.” – Papa Hemingway

And, for a woman, that includes just “being” who you are.

Mary Claire Kendall writes about stars of Hollywood’s “Golden Age,” with a special focus on their stories of recovery.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

“The Way”—Journey of the Heart... and Soul

By Mary Claire Kendall 

A good friend of my father has seen Emilio Estevez’s film The Way three times.  The Way is about a father who travels to France to recover the body of his estranged son, who died in the Pyrenees during a violent storm—just one day into his journey along  “El camino de Santiago,” also known as “The Way of St. James.”

My father’s friend is about to see it a fourth time.  Now that I’ve seen the film, I know why. 

Not only does Martin Sheen, who portrays the father, give a brilliant performance; but the screenplay by Estevez, who plays the son, is masterful; the direction, also by Estevez, production values and cinematography, superb.

Quite simply, this film, which has Oscar written all over it, is a beautiful, mesmerizing film, with layer after layer of meaning—achieved without any 3-D technology or special effects extravaganza. 

Its secret is the subtle yet rich, multi-dimensional portrayal of humanity and spirituality.  Nothing hits you over the head, except, of course, the sudden death of Daniel (the son) at the outset; the magnificent vistas along “The Way” as Tom (the father) relives and honors his son’s memory; and, at the end, when the four travelers, Wizard of Oz-like, arrive at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostella in Galicia in northwestern Spain in a stunning denouement.

Tom, an American opthamologist, initially had no plan other than to bring the remains of his son home to California. Then, he begins to learn about the 800-kilometer-long “El camino” leading to the Cathedral, where, tradition has it, the remains of the apostle Saint James are buried. 

In 40 or 41 A.D., Our Lady traveled with angels to see St. James in Zaragoza in northeastern Spain, and tell him Jesus wished him to return to Jerusalem, where he would be martyred.  St. Augustine writes about the episode in The City of God, revealed through an apparition to a nun, the only such apparition before Our Lady’s Assumption. Our Lady was carried by angels at night on a cloud to Zaragoza. During the trip, the angels built a pillar of marble and a miniature image of Our Lady. When they all arrived, Our Lady delivered Jesus’ message to St. James, and also asked that a church be built on the site of the apparition. The main altar, she said, would feature the pillar and image and special protective graces would flow to the people of Zaragoza for their devotion to Mary and Jesus.

Legend has it that St. James’ remains were transported by boat from Jerusalem to northwestern Spain. When his burial site was discovered over 1000 years ago during medieval times, “The Way” began attracting numerous pilgrims and became one of the most popular pilgrimages, together with those to Rome (Via Francigena) and Jerusalem. However, the Black Death, Protestant Reformation and 16th century political unrest diminished travel along “The Way,” down to just a few pilgrims by 1980. Then interest surged, whereupon travel steadily rose to nearly 5,000 pilgrims in 1990 and over 272,000 twenty years later.

That’s the awe-inspiring backdrop of the film.

While, Tom, a non-practicing Catholic, initially has just one purpose when he arrives, he soon feels impelled by some mystical force to join the pilgrims along “The Way”—putatively, solely to honor his son’s memory.

It’s a heartwarming journey full of colorful scenic and cultural vignettes and unforgettable, all-too-human characters, searching for more meaning in their lives. This is especially true in the case of the three characters Tom ends up traveling with, whom, as he plays off of them, inject humor as well as pathos as the layers of their lives are peeled away—revealing their loss, brokenness and pain. 

The film has a touching scene upholding life’s sacredness from conception.  However, the cremation of Daniel and related details could render Tom’s choice problematic given his initial weak faith. “The Church permits cremation,” the official Catechism says, “provided that it does not demonstrate a denial of faith in the resurrection of the body.”  And, while his choice is clearly cinematic—albeit Daniel’s appearances along the way are equally if not more compelling—it’s important to note, cremation is “permitted,” not “recommended.”

This is the seventh time father and son, Sheen and Estevez, have worked together.

Interestingly, in an LA radio interview on “The Busted Halo Show with Father Dave,” Estevez revealed the film’s inspiration was none other than a pilgrimage Sheen and grandson Taylor made a few years earlier on “The Way,” where Estevez’s son, then only 19, met and fell in love with his future wife, soon moving to Spain, where his great-grandfather, to whom the film is devoted, was born.

Truly, it’s a family affair—and not just for Sheen and his family but for many other families, as well.

Published in The Wanderer, December 15, 2011

“Hugo”: Broken Machines and Broken People

By Mary Claire Kendall 

Asa Butterfield, left, and Chloe Moretz in a scene from "Hugo."
 (Jaap Buitendijk / Paramount Pictures)

Hugo is one of Hollywood’s best offerings this Christmas season.

It’s Martin Scorsese’s homage to motion picture pioneer Georges Méliès, inventor of special effects, born 150 years ago on December 8, in Paris; and like Scorsese, a Catholic.  It’s a magical film, not just because, ironically, of its own deft utilization of 3-D special effects, but because of its uplifting message.

Based on the novel, The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick, far from cheapening human love, Hugo enriches it—love of one’s art, of husband and wife, father and son, and of friends—in this case, the protagonist, an orphan named Hugo Cabret, played by Asa Butterfield, and Isabelle, living with Méliès and his wife, played by Chloe Grace Moretz, who helps Hugo solve a mystery that unlocks not only the film’s mystery—why Méliès, played by Ben Kingsley, is so crabby; but the mystery of life.

Through the persistence and bravery of Hugo, Méliès finally, after much resistance, realizes “the story’s not over yet.” 

Known for such masterpieces as A Trip to the Moon (1902), Méliès built the first movie studio and produced some 500 short films, but was forced into bankruptcy in 1913.  With the outbreak of World War I, the French Army melted down most of his films to make boot heels for the Army, ending his filmmaking career.

While it is true audiences gradually tired of Méliès’ special effects, given how they overshadowed a story; another factor in his demise was Thomas A. Edison, Inc.’s distribution of A Trip to the Moon without paying Méliès royalties—ironic, given Edison’s own aggressive campaign of enforcement against copyright infringement vis-à-vis his properties.

“He [Méliès] lost basically most of his financing,” Scorsese explained to Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, “when the bigger companies came in… What happened (is)…  [Thomas Edison and his associates] were just taking the films and making dupes of them. So that was one of the reasons why he [Méliès] was finished financially, ultimately.”

But, then God always brings good out of evil.

With the help of other filmmakers, Méliès became a toy salesman at the Gare Montparnasse station, made famous by Claude Monet, which is where the film imaginatively brings his story to life.

His nemesis, Hugo, lives behind the walls and above the station, where he ensures the station’s many clocks run on time. It’s a family enterprise; or, at least, was. His father, played by Jude Law, recently deceased, appears in flashbacks; and his Uncle Claude, an inebriate, is soon out of the picture, leaving Hugo to fend for himself.

Hugo comes to Méliès’ shop to steal items for his work and in his quest to repair the automaton his father found at the museum where he worked.  As his father showed him, it’s the missing key that will bring it back to life. Méliès is a stern taskmaster and has little patience for the ruffian who comes to his shop.

Hugo nimbly survives—stealing food; fending off the rigid, buffoonish station inspector, played by Sacha Baron Cohen; observing the lives of visitors to the station; slipping into the nearby theater to watch silent film classics; and maneuvering the station’s labyrinthine passageways.

One day, Méliès gives him the chance to show his skill at repairing toys and, duly impressed, gives him a job.  That’s how Hugo meets the beguiling Isabelle who “lives” at the station—in the book store, whereupon the mysteries begin to unfold.

The story is particularly poignant for the way it mirrors Scorsese’s own early life, trapped in a world apart from other children in New York’s Little Italy when he suffered from asthma, finding solace in film. He was fascinated by 1950s 3-D films and later helped rescue filmmakers, who like Méliès, had seen better days.

While the 3-D artistry in highlighting mechanical and architectural wonders is enchanting, the real artistry lies in how Scorsese touches hearts.

As Professor Ian Christie of London’s Birkbeck College said, “To look at (Scorsese’s) films without an awareness of their spiritual dimension is to miss an important part of what makes Scorsese one of today’s great artists.”

Ultimately, the film is not about broken machines but broken people, who, with the help of others, can come back to life; and how, in life, as with a clock’s intricate parts, each of us has a unique role to play.

That Hugo is delighting audiences of all ages is testament to its cinematic workmanship, unfolding mystery, and uplifting message.  Not only that, it is delighting critics— winning both Best Picture and Best Director from the National Board of Review, and Best Director from the Washington and Boston film critics associations—and promises more not only at the Oscars but in how it shapes the landscape of filmmaking for years to come.

Published in The Wanderer, January 5, 2012.