Monday, July 13, 2015

Hi Harper Lee, Bye Omar Sharif

Scott Simon of National Public Radio added this wise observation to Twitter posta about the controversial first chapter:  "Maybe there's a reason why Harper Lee never published the novel she wrote before Mockingbird.  I think it's likely the Atticus she created in Mockingbird isn't the same character at all, just same name.  Novelists do that."  Acclaimed novelist Harper Lee will be in the news this week.
Go Set A Watchman, written by Harper Lee before she wrote her internationally-beloved masterpiece, To Kill a Mockingbird, hits bookstores Tuesday.  Jaws have already hit the floor while folks read the first chapter published online.  The revelation about the older Atticus Finch was akin to an investigative news report uncovering that Santa Clause fired his elves from the toy factory, replaced them with child labor and cheated on Mrs. Clause by hooking up at North Pole gay bars frequented by chubby chasers.

With writers, often the first thing that you write is awful and/or does not meet with enthusiastic response.  I've never had a short story or book published but I can remember the first items that I submitted for consideration back in the early 80s.  They were awful.  Sunday morning on National Public Radio, I heard a book critic rate Go Set A Watchman as "messy."  According to a July 11th Wall Street Journal article, Harper Lee's father was a segregationist who had a change of heart.  He was a young lawyer when he unsuccessfully defended two black men in court.  They were hanged for murder.  There's been speculation that her father's bad day in court coupled with the nation's attention to the murder of black teen Emmett Till in August 1955 inspired Lee to write To Kill A Mockingbird.  A huggable and well-liked Chicago teen, Till was visiting relatives in Mississippi.  Accused of whistling at a white woman, he was kidnapped and killed.  Till was beaten beyond recognition, shot, and his body was thrown into the Tallahatchie River.  His body had been tied and weighted down with a heavy appliance from a cotton gin.  The two white men accused of the murder were declared not guilty after the all-white, all-male jury deliberated for one hour and seven minutes.  Later, in a magazine interview for which they were paid, the men admitted to killing 14 year-old Emmett Till.  It's been written that Rosa Parks said she thought of Emmett Till when she refused to sit in the back of the bus, a landmark moment in the Civil Rights movement.  A PBS documentary on Emmett Till can be seen on YouTube.

I agree with NPR's Scott Simon.  Did Lee want her first work published?  Has she issued a statement about it?  I'd like to know.  I read To Kill A Mockingbird again just this year.  The undeniable relevance that it has today was like a bucket of cold water to the face.  The "Black Lives Matter" protest theme will find significance and a friend in that novel.  Even the June racist murders of nine black people, shot to death by a visiting young white man as they sat in their church, made me think of To Kill a Mockingbird.  Calpurnia, the maid in the Finch home, takes one of the Finch children to her church.  There's immediate friction.  Members of the congregation are suspicious of seeing a white face enter their church.  That's a scene not in the 1962 classic film adaptation.

I feel that after Harper Lee wrote Go Set A Watchman, things changed.  Her father had changed, America was changing with the Civil Rights movement and in the attention national press was giving to racial inequality (the Till murder trial was national news).  And she was changing as an artist.  The message she wanted to convey was crystallizing more.  Also, there was probably advice from her friend, Truman Capote.  Harper Lee said that one "should write about what he knows and write truthfully."  She wrote truth in her second novel, a book that no one has ever called "messy".  For me, Atticus will remain the Atticus of To Kill A Mockingbird on page and film.
International movie star Omar Sharif died at age 83.  Sharif was a major movie star in Egypt before he rode into stardom on a camel in David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia.  He was a hit with Egyptian audiences in 1959's Struggle on the Nile...
....and Sharif starred in the hugely popular 1961 success, The River of Love, a modern day Egyptian version of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina.
Then came Hollywood attention with the 1962 British epic, Lawrence of Arabia, now considered a film classic.
Lean's famous film teamed Sharif for the first team with Peter O'Toole and brought him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.  Then came Doctor Zhivago...

... and Funny Girl starring Barbra Streisand and directed by William Wyler.  Omar sang with Barbra as the handsome Nicky Arnstein in the musical biopic adaptation of the Broadway hit.  Nicky loves entertainer Fanny Brice but he's as addicted to gambling as she is to her show business career.                                  
Funny Girl, Doctor Zhivago  and Lawrence of Arabia were Oscar nominees for Best Picture.  Lawrence of Arabia won that Oscar.  Sharif got to act opposite another international movie star whose film career began abroad.  I loved him with Ingrid Bergman in 1964's The Yellow Rolls-Royce.  For me, a kid having a Saturday afternoon at the movies, he was a mighty fine Genghis Khan (1965).  He reunited with Peter O'Toole for 1967's The Night of the Generals, he reunited with Barbra Streisand for Funny Lady (1975) and he did some goofy comedy for the Zucker Brothers (Airplane!) in 1984's Top Secret! starring Val Kilmer.
When I was growing up, Omar Sharif was a reason to go to the movies on the weekend.  Not that I'm Egyptian but he was an ethnic actor on the Hollywood screen that, let's be real, gave us predominantly Caucasian faces.  I looked for reflections of myself and my world on the TV and movie screen.  I appreciated the talented ethnic actors who broke through.  He was fascinating to watch with his soulful dark eyes and his poise.  I always wished I could look terrific in a tux like he did.  Interviewing Mr. Sharif on my VH1 talk show in the 1980s was a huge thrill.  He was in New York City for a special event -- the expensive and loving 1988 restoration of Lawrence of Arabia was set to premiere for its re-release.  Sharif was quite excited about this.  During our interview, I threw to a clip of the movie.  He would not look at the clip while it played.  He wanted to save all his emotions for seeing it again on the big screen.  I remember that, his graciousness, and learning that his Christian named was Michael.  He became a Muslim later.  I know many of you have seen this before, but if one or two of you haven't, watch this.  It's a demo reel of my VH1 talk show.  Omar Sharif is in it talking about Peter O'Toole.
That's the reel I submitted to Turner Classic Movies years ago when I pushed to get a job at TCM working behind the scenes.  No luck.  I could never get a gig or a meeting with TCM.  But, I was extremely lucky at VH1 to have my own show and to interview such great stars.  I was in movie fan heaven during those VH1 years.

Minions made $115 million over the weekend.  Those little yellow creatures brought in some big green bucks at the box office.  I totally enjoyed myself watching Minions.  Scroll down to read my recent review. I read some reviews by film critics and I wondered if they saw the same feature.  Minions is nearly 90 minutes of brisk animated goofiness.  It's for kids.  It's for working parents who need family time with the kids and want to take them to the movies over the weekend.  Relatives with AARP cards will also dig it because of its funny 1960s references that the little Millennial kids won't get.  It references a classic number from a classic MGM musical.  The name of the hit documentary salute to MGM musicals applies to Minions -- "That's Entertainment."  A few critics reviewed Minions as if they were reviewing Birdman, Boyhood or a new drama by the Coen Brothers.   They went on about plot holes, a mediocre script and vocal actors not projecting enough charisma.   I wanted to say, "Lighten up!  It's a full-length cartoon!"  And it's fun.  And Jon Hamm did good comedy work voicing the hipster husband to the main villainess.  He did not sound like Don Draper on Mad Men at all.

The box office proves the public often has more of a clue than high-tone critics do.


  1. I have to agree. I think the Atticus of Go Set a Watchman is a wholly different character from the one in To Kill a Mockingbird. While I have never published fiction, I have written fiction and often characters in my first draft are dramatically different from what they are in the final draft. I have no doubt this is the case with Harper Lee and Go Set a Watchman.


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