Multi-Movie Weekend – Magnolia, Hard Eight, and Secret Honor

Thanks to a vicious head cold, I left work early on Friday and spent the next, say, 53 hours on my couch or on my bed, consuming a steady diet of chicken broth, television, Sudafed, and movies. The movies were especially enjoyable; I watched three, all connected in a way, and they gave me my first taste of Paul Thomas Anderson films.

Early this summer, I listened to Marc Maron’s WTF interview with Anderson, which was released in January of this year when he was promoting Inherent Vice. At the time I was intrigued by Inherent Vice (still haven’t seen it) and as far as Anderson’s works go, had only seen part of The Master. But the interview was fascinating. Anderson seemed cool, smart, and thoughtful, and was really open about his movies, his process and his inspirations.

My first Anderson movie of the weekend was Magnolia. I wish I could remember the first time I heard of Magnolia but I can’t; I’m guessing it was on Jason Robards’ Wikipedia page. I remember thinking, though, that I had never even heard of this movie, yet Ebert named it to his “Great Movies” list, and it featured tons of actors I love, and it was Robards’ last film. Those all felt like reasons to see it someday.

I can’t say I am putting it on my personal Top 10, but there was something about Magnolia I really appreciated. It was different from any movie I’ve ever seen, and it was a story told honestly. The characters – and in turn, the performances – are great. It’s interesting to watch with hindsight and know it was Robards’ final role. Honestly, I probably need to process it more before I make any serious judgments or interpretations, but I at least like knowing that I have finally seen this film.

One of the great performances in Magnolia is by Philip Baker Hall, and he inspired my next movie choice: Anderson’s first feature, Hard Eight. Hall stars in it. In his first scene in Magnolia, I wasn’t sure who he was, but his voice instantly caught me. He has a great voice; fitting for his character, who’s a TV game show host. I searched his name and remembered Anderson talking about him in the Maron podcast. He knew after seeing him in Secret Honor (spoiler alert: the third movie I watched this weekend) that he loved him as an actor and wanted to write something for him.

Like Magnolia, this one is all about the characters. Sydney, Hall’s character, is magnetic. You wonder about him, and root for him, and love listening to him talk. I think he’s especially great in scenes opposite Gwyneth Paltrow, who’s fantastic in this movie as a waitress at a casino Sydney frequents.

Hard Eight contained a whole bunch of elements I am prone to love – fabulous characters and performances, a plot that is about something but the movie’s not really about that, lights (the fact that I love cool use of lights in movies actually dawned on me during this film; like Michael Keaton walking into the liquor store in Birdman, and The Big Lebowski‘s bowling alley stars – in Hard Eight I loved the glimmer of slot machines), and music that fit perfectly. And, the dialogue – John C. Reilly especially had some lines that made his character clear to me. “I know three types of karate, ok? Jiu-jitsu, Akido, and regular karate.”

And the last movie, Secret Honor. It’s a Robert Altman movie from 1984, with Philip Baker Hall in a solo performance as Richard Nixon. I mean, come on! It’s the movie Anderson mentioned as one in which he saw Hall and knew he was for him. He had to make something for him, and he wrote the Sydney character in Hard Eight specifically with him in mind.

Secret Honor is Hall, as Nixon, walking around his study, drinking scotch, ranting about everything from JFK to Kissinger to his mother. It’s wacky. Hall gives an incredible performance, and not just because he carries a 90-minute one man show and keeps it interesting the whole time. From what I’ve read about Nixon, he gets the mannerisms down perfectly; one moment early on, he pours a glass of scotch, but starts walking off with the bottle instead of the glass, absentmindedly. That’s one small example, but it showed he knew the character.

Perhaps my favorite part of the film – or rather, the overarching reason I found it so fascinating – was a screen before the title, a disclaimer of sorts, explaining the film did not depict an actual scene from Nixon’s life, but was “a work of fiction, using as a fictional character a real person, President Richard M. Nixon – in an attempt to understand.” The film doesn’t spare Nixon, exactly, but it comes from a sympathetic place. Altman and the writers didn’t make anything up in an attempt to indict Nixon; they just wanted to understand him better, and this film and this performance seem an appropriate way to do so.

MagnoliaHard Eight, and Secret Honor – I recommend them all. And hope you watch them in good health.

The Great Ben Bradlee

Ben Bradlee died today. And it got me thinking how I wrote only two months ago about Robin Williams’ passing. In that case, I was mourning the fact that I never appreciated him when he was alive. With Ben Bradlee, it’s different. I don’t feel sad in the same way, because Ben Bradlee had a long life and I was aware of many of his accomplishments. No one is wondering what could have been. But it seems strange to know such a life force is no longer here.

Everything I know about Bradlee comes from All the President’s Men (book and movie) and the Bradlee biography I read last year, Yours in Truth by Jeff Himmelman. He’s a fascinating character to me. A lot of stories being recounted in the wake of his death follow a certain pattern – Bradlee giving unorthodox words of encouragement to a young reporter, with an intimidating yet inspiring air – but I love reading them all. A new one I read tonight was from New Yorker editor David Remnick, who eulogized Bradlee for the magazine and described his encounter with the editor when he was a Post reporter in the 1980s. (“So what’s all this about Moynihan and the booze!”)

I have nothing personal to say about Ben Bradlee, because I never worked for him or even met him. All I know is he made me love journalism because his work brought me to understand what journalism really was. It helped me understand what journalism could do, what it was at its core. He made me nostalgic for a media world I never even lived in, where the newspaper ruled. He vaulted me into a great fascination with the Watergate scandal. Even today, I can’t put a finger on why it captivates me, but I suspect Bradlee’s effect on the story has something to do with it.

It doesn’t feel right to sit here and list all the anecdotes that shaped my perception of Bradlee and made me admire him (I recounted enough of those when I wrote about Himmelman’s book last March), though I could list numerous quotes from All the President’s Men or talk about how Jason Robards thanked Ben Bradlee in his acceptance speech for an Oscar he won by playing Ben Bradlee.

I’ll leave the tributes to people who knew him best, and even though there’s a melancholy air to any remembrance, I feel like with Bradlee it will be more fond recollection and grateful celebration.

Recently Read: “Yours in Truth: A Personal Portrait of Ben Bradlee”

It was Christmastime when I noticed Yours in Truth: A Personal Portrait of Ben Bradlee sitting on a featured shelf of some kind at Barnes & Noble. At the time, I had other books in the queue, but being fascinated with Watergate and the film All the President’s Men, I took a picture of the cover and made a mental note to read it later. When I found a hardcover copy at the Strand for $10 in late January, I decided I had to go for it.

yoursintruth-bookGlad I did. I loved this book, for what I learned about Ben Bradlee, executive editor of the Washington Post from 1968 to 1991 and the man who oversaw much of its Watergate coverage. Loved it for what I learned about Woodward and Bernstein. For the way author Jeff Himmelman was open and honest about his relationship with his subjects (particularly Bradlee and Woodward). Loved it for the way photos, newspaper clippings and Bradlee memos were sprinkled throughout the text.

My knowledge of Ben Bradlee is limited to what I know from Jason Robards’ portrayal of him in the film All the President’s Men, and from some comment Tony Kornheiser once made on his D.C. radio show about Ben being his personal standard for journalism (or something like that. Wish I had cared at the time to write down exactly what he said). Jeff Himmelman made Ben Bradlee come so alive for me that I no longer pictured Jason Robards in my head when reading about Ben. I better understand him as a person, reporter, presidential confidante, socialite, husband, manager and editor.

Even though I now picture Ben Bradlee beyond the way he’s portrayed in film, having that background appreciation for All the President’s Men helped me love Yours in Truth. Himmelman talks a lot about Robards as Bradlee. On page 178, he describes Robards playing a scene in which Ben has to call a White House communications director and smooth out a situation with one of his reporters. Ben has the upper hand. “It’s a great scene in the movie,” Himmelman began. “One that Robards plays with raised-eyebrow perfection.” I cracked a huge smile because I knew exactly what he was talking about. It’s my favorite scene in the movie by a mile. (Apparently, this clip does not exist on YouTube. Rent the movie just for this scene. It’s perfect.)

Aside from getting to know Ben Bradlee, I loved this book because of Himmelman’s commitment to uncovering all the details. This was especially evident in his mission to understand Watergate as completely as possible. When you’re Bob Woodward’s former research assistant and you’re writing about Ben Bradlee, Watergate’s going to come up… a lot. He couldn’t shortchange himself or his future readers with a half-baked understanding of the journalistic episode most central to Ben Bradlee’s career:

In February of 2011, I realized that in order to write believably about Watergate I was going to have to understand the story in a way that I hadn’t up until then. I was going to have to spend as long as it took to read every single one of the newspaper stories and all of the relevant books. In order to know what I had, and what to say about Ben’s role in all of it, I couldn’t just focus on the major episodes that everybody has written about a thousand times.

The research shows. It gave him new insight into the scandal, even if it ended up backfiring in a way. In his meticulous process, he uncovered an unsent memo of Ben’s, in which Bradlee admitted some lingering doubt about the truth of Watergate and Deep Throat’s information, and basically led to Ben and Bob Woodward turning on him after the book’s publication. I’m sure my appreciation for his research commitment is no consolation, but Himmelman’s relentless study of Watergate inspired me to grasp any subject I tackle, even if it’s just a hobby, with the same depth.

An assortment of other favorite parts, lines and anecdotes:

  • I’m a big fan of Pardon the Interruption on ESPN, which features former Post sportswriters Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon (Kornheiser’s daily talk show on the D.C. ESPN radio affiliate is also fantastic), and knowing that they interacted with and respected Bradlee made him seem more real to me. There’s a Wilbon anecdote in the first chapter, but more Kornheiser stuff throughout, including a quote that Himmelman places in a section of memos and thoughts about Ben. Anyone who has ever heard Tony Kornheiser speak can hear in his or her mind exactly how Kornheiser would say this (p. 418):

Tony Kornheiser, June 22, 2011:
I cannot describe to you what I felt, and I’m sure that so many, many others felt, when he walked among us. Ben could have been a king. Ben in that newsroom was King Arthur. I mean, he was.

  • And, as a proud owner of two books that are collections of Kornheiser’s columns for the Post‘s Style section, I enjoyed learning how the section came to be, and that it pioneered the living/lifestyle (from which Style takes its name) section format now used across the nation.
  • There are a couple references, including one in an introductory quote, to a book Ben started but never actually wrote, which would have been called How to Read a Newspaper. Oh, how I wish that book actually existed.
  • A favorite Ben story: In reaction to Bob Woodward’s comments during a TV interview in 1984, in which he said he’d heard an estimate that roughly forty Post employees regularly used cocaine, Ben sent out a statement that cocaine was illegal and anyone found using it would be fired. “Later that afternoon,” Himmelman describes, “a reporter in the Magazine section of the paper remembers Ben making his way across the newsroom, pointing at various reporters as he went, shouting, “Thirty-seven! Thirty-eight! Thirty-nine!” (p. 439)
  • One last favorite Ben story: Longtime Post reporter Larry Stern died unexpectedly in 1979, and there was a reception at the Post office after his funeral. Ben was so upset and at a loss for words over Stern’s death that he threw his champagne glass at a brick wall outside (they were standing in an outdoor courtyard). Everyone around him followed suit, and Ben framed the bill from the catering company for all the broken glasses, hanging it in the newsroom next to a picture of Larry (p. 449-450).

There was so much more to this book than Watergate and little anecdotes from Ben’s life. It chronicled Ben’s path to becoming executive editor, his personal life, his close relationship with JFK, the Pentagon Papers ordeal, how he worked with Katharine Graham, the Janet Cooke scandal, his strengths and weaknesses as a manager, and more. I recommend it to anyone interested in journalism or the Watergate scandal, or to anyone who wants to get to know a fascinating person.

Book image: JeffHimmelman.com