Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Regarding Jen Lancaster: The Artist vs. Her Art (II)

I wrote about Mel Gibson in December -- how I'm sorry I know as much about him as I do because it makes it impossible for me to enjoy his movies.

I feel that way about author Jen Lancaster, too. Here's her page on Amazon. Her books have made me laugh, and one (Pretty in Plaid) included a touching and memorable passage about what fun it is, how exhilarating it is, for small town girls, like she and I once were, to come into Chicago to make our fortunes. It was a lovely piece of writing.

But there's an intolerant undertone to her work. Cringe-worthy, really. Like referring to Rachel Maddow as "he." Really? That's funny in the new millennium? Or sharing how riotously funny Ann Coulter is, and how wise and witty she finds Rush Limbaugh. Or closing one of her books with a tale about verbally dressing down the homeless person who had the temerity to stop her en route to the swimming pool. That passage made me want to put the book down and take a Silkwood shower.

Because she's such an animal lover (someone who loves cats and rescues pitbulls couldn't possibly be as intolerant as she sounds, right?) and so gifted, I used to assume much of what she was wrote was for comic effect. But then a funny thing happened ...

The six degrees of separation between us shrunk. A friend of hers is in a book club with a friend of mine. They read My Fair Lazy, a Lancaster book I enjoyed so much I actually bought a second copy and gave it to my niece for Buy a Friend a Book Week. Celeste* didn't like the book -- she thought the tone too sarcastic and the content more than a little silly -- but was reluctant to say it because she totally respected how fond and proud Ms. Lancaster's friend was. It got progressively more uncomfortable for Celeste when Jen Lancaster spoke to their book group. I was excited to hear all about it.

Celeste reported it was awkward, saying, "It was like 'O Come, All Ye Faithful.' Jen Lancaster was all, 'Oh, come let us adore me.'" Celeste said that all she and one of the other bookclub members talked about during the ride home was how uncomfortable it was to have that "loud woman brag about her accomplishments" in their friend's living room. An influential woman in Chicago marketing circles, Celeste had recently spent time with former President George W. Bush and Maria Shriver and observed that when it came to ego, they had nothing on Jen Lancaster.

Because of the intimate way Jen writes in her memoirs, I felt like I knew her. So I told myself the author behaved that way because she was nervous and tried so hard to be a good reflection on her friend, their hostess, that it backfired.

Around this time I made the mistake of following Jen Lancaster on Facebook and Twitter. For one as sarcastic and critical as she is, she's awfully thin skinned. When Andrew Breitbart died, she was surprised and hurt that Tweeters mocked her sorrow. Breitbart was a writer she admired and he was dead! I couldn't help but sniff. I mean, one of Andrew Breitbart's last big stories was about Barack Obama's relationship with Professor Derrick Bell. Bell died in 2011, before Breitbart called him racially divisive, before Breitbart made it seem like somehow Barack Obama shouldn't have associated with the scholar who was the first African American to earn tenure at Harvard law. A lot us admired Bell, and how he stood up for women and minorities. It's OK to slag Bell posthumously but not Breitbart? Got it.

Or when she incited her Facebook "fans" (not "friends"; she refers to us as "fans") to call and email a suburban car dealership she believed cheated her husband. There were even derogatory reviews on Yelp! posted by people who never set foot on the dealership's showroom floor. It was a creepy display of bullying, and yet Lancaster was so amused by and proud of herself that she recounted the tale in an interview with Jenny Lawson on Amazon.

Or most recently, she used Facebook to plead for people to not be hostile and intolerant regarding the election. She did this just days after Ann Coulter, the woman she finds so funny, called the President of the United States "a retard." I responded to Jen Lancaster that I agreed with her whole heartedly, and that perhaps she could call upon Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter to ratchet down the rhetoric a bit, too. And then I "unliked" her page.

Without social media, would I ever have discovered the author I once enjoyed is self-involved without redeeming self-awareness? Probably not. Should I view her published work as if I hadn't read her tweets and interviews and posts? I don't see how I can.

The lady herself recently said, “No one’s going to be won over by my spouting dogma in my books because that’s not why people buy my stuff. I don’t write essays on why liberalism doesn’t work or why Obama’s taking us down a slippery slope. People read my books to laugh, so that’s my goal. But if my goofy little stories just happen to emphasize conservative values like morality, self-determination, and liberty, well… let’s just say that’s not unintentional.”

Her message may not be unintentional but it's still offensive. "Morality" is a "conservative value?" That would be news to my minister. "Self-determination?" To paraphrase Martin Luther King, Jr., it's hard to pull yourself up by your bootstraps when you don't have boots ... and not everyone has the advantages of the Purdue degree it took her many, many years to earn (oh, her patient parents!) and the gainfully employed spouse Lancaster has written extensively about herself. Her "goofy little stories" now strike me as more hostile than amusing and I'm not spending my money on them anymore.

What about you? Do you have a Mel Gibson or Jen Lancaster? Is there an artist or performer you wish you still appreciated, but can't?

*Not her real name.

Paperwork update

Issues related to my mother's final affairs are slowly grinding to resolution. I transferred the gas out of my name to that of the reverse mortgage company. If they don't want to pay it, that's their business. I'm done. As of February 1, I have ceased footing the bill for snow removal at my mother's home, as well.

The electricity is a bit more complicated, because my mother never switched that account from my dad (who died in 1991) to her. Commonwealth Edison wants proof that he's dead. I don't have his death certificate and I'm not going to incur the expense of getting another one. After all, since my mother had a reverse mortgage, her home was never legally my responsibility. I have just been paying the utilities so my kid sister would be comfortable as she went about the painful business of disposing of our mother's belongings. Now that is done, and so is my largess. So I told the customer service rep that I would send them a letter from the cemetery, listing my dad's plot number and the date of his burial. After all, we wouldn't bury him if he wasn't dead, would we? Well, the ComEd rep said he wasn't sure they could accept that as documentation. "So what then?" I asked. The rep responded that since I am not -- nor have I ever been -- responsible for the property, I should just ignore any bills I continue to receive. "Eventually," he said, "the power will be turned off one way or the other." Seems incredibly wasteful, doesn't it?

Then there's the reverse mortgage itself. Early last month, my lawyer notified the reverse mortgage company that we wanted to do a "deed in lieu of foreclosure" and that as of February 1, I would not longer care for the house in any way. It took them forever and ever to get back to us, but finally they have -- with a list of 8 demands. My lawyer told them that four were unacceptable to us, since we were never the homeowners and we never entered into any agreement with them. He told the company what they already knew -- that the "deed in lieu" not only gives us a sense of closure, it saves them much of legwork and expense that accompanies a typical foreclosure. Their rep said while that may be true, their inviolate procedure demands we sign the letter with 8 terms that she sent us. And so we are, with 4 of the 8 crossed out and our initials beside the big old X's.

By "us," "we," and "our," I refer to my kid sister and I. It remains to be seen if my older sister will get on board with us. I don't know what I'll do if she refuses. Or if the reverse mortgage company refuses to accept our revised letter of intention.

Drink and cry, probably.

Hurts so good

"You have a computer back," the massage therapist said, leaning with her elbow into the knot in my shoulder. It hurt, yes it did. But it also felt soooooo good. I admit I'm still a little sore. It was the first massage I've had since late summer and I was a lumpy, bumpy mess.

31 Days of Oscar Blogathon: Spotlight on Anne & Kate

I think I love Oscar so much because awards season hits when I'm jonesing the hardest for baseball,* and like the MLB, the AMPAS is all about stats. Which Best Picture won the most Oscars ... which made the most money (adjusted for inflation)... which director has the most Oscars ... Oscar aficionados can answer to all those questions and more.†

While looking through Oscar trivia, I found an interesting factoid:

With her unprecedented four Best Actress Oscars and eight additional nominations 
in the lead category, Katharine Hepburn is the Queen of the Spring Classic. 
And there's only one actress who both beat and lost to The Great Kate at Oscar time.  
That lady is the estimable Anne Bancroft.

Anne Bancroft had five Best Actress nominations in all, including:
•  1964 for The Pumpkin Eater
•  1977 for The Turning Point
•  1985 for Agnes of God

But for this post, we're concentrating on the two other years ...

1962. The thirty-fifth Oscar ceremony was held April 8, 1963, at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. Five actresses were nominated for Best Actress that night -- including Bette Davis, Geraldine Page and Lee Remick -- but neither of the two we're focused on were in attendance. Anne Bancroft was in New York, performing onstage in Mother Courage. And Hepburn, well, she wasn't there because, as she frequently said, awards shows gave her "dyspepsia."

Born Anna Italiano in the Bronx, Anne Bancroft always retained deep roots in New York. She loved Broadway, originating the role of Gittel in Two for the Seasaw (to be replaced by Shirley MacLaine in the movie). She was an early choice to play Fanny Brice onstage in Funny Girl (I think you know who ultimately won that role). And, most famously, she played the role of Helen Keller's teacher, Annie Sullivan in The Miracle Worker, performing it for over a year at The Playhouse Theater.

Both Broadway's Annie and Helen (Patty Duke) made their way to the big screen and the results are breathtaking. Viewed today, even half a century later, their performances remain fresh and moving. The Miracle Worker cemented Anne Bancroft's status in the public's mind as a dramatic actress, but over her long career she proved herself deft at comedy, too. No surprise, when you consider she was married to and appeared with Mel Brooks.

Then there was Kate, with her 9th nomination for Long Day's Journey into Night. She was Mary, one of O'Neill's "haunted Tyrones." As the drug addled matriarch, she struggled with her past-his-prime husband and a pair of talented yet tormented sons (the tubucular writer and the alcoholic actor), and gave one of her own favorite performances. In her memoirs, Hepburn wrote that she was pleased the film stayed so close to the original text because, "I felt entirely supported by the words. What an experience! I'll never forget it."

When Oscar night rolled around, Ms. Bancroft unwittingly played a role in one of Hollywood's great feuds. Anne let the Academy know very early on that she wouldn't be able to attend the ceremony because of her Broadway commitment. Joan Crawford offered to accept on her behalf, and Bancroft agreed. Why not? After all, she was a relative newcomer and Crawford was a screen legend. What she didn't know was how upset Crawford was about not being nominated for that year's Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, or how much Bette Davis was reveling in the fact that she was nominated when Crawford wasn't. It gave Crawford tremendous pleasure that it was she -- not Davis -- who got to breeze onto the stage, looking every inch the glamorous star, and accept the The Best Actress Award on behalf of ABD (Anyone But Davis).

1967. The fortieth Academy Awards ceremony was held on April 10, 1968. It had been postponed that year out of respect for Dr. Martin Luther King, who had been laid to rest just the day before.

The film that brought Kate to Oscar's attention yet again was a highly personal one, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. She envisioned it as a launching vehicle for her niece, Katherine Houghton (her onscreen daughter), and an opportunity to get her long-time lover, Spencer Tracy, before the cameras one more time. The studio initially balked at the casting of the sickly Mr. Tracy because they were afraid he wouldn't be able to complete the picture. But Hepburn was not to be denied. Both she and producer/director Stanley Kramer agreed to put their salaries in escrow for Columbia if the movie had to be shelved.

Tracy did a fine job in his last role, and the scene where his Matt Drayton describes his memories of love and passion for Hepburn's teary-eyed Christina gets me every time. Naturally Hepburn wasn't in attendance on Oscar night, but when notified of her win she said she liked to think the Academy had awarded it to "both of us."

Anne Bancroft was nominated for the role that made her a pop culture icon, Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate. It was a part she wanted badly. She was a big fan of director Mike Nichols and told Roger Ebert that Mrs. Robinson was the most interesting character in the piece. Still, it was a daring career choice for her to make. Hollywood is not always kind to aging actresses, here she was, pleading to play "the older woman" to Dustin Hoffman, an actor just six years her junior in real life.

1967 is remembered as the year that New Hollywood burst forth. Many pundits thought performances like Bancroft's and Faye Dunaway's (nominated for Bonnie and Clyde) made older, established Hollywood types uncomfortable, thereby opening the door for Kate to win her second Oscar.

Also nominated that year were Dame Edith Evans for The Whisperers, that other Hepburn, Audrey, in Wait Until Dark.

PS Yes, Meryl Streep has more nominations than Hepburn, but two of them (Kramer vs. Kramer and The Deer Hunter) were in the Best Supporting Category. Kate still dominates in the lead category. And they were nominated together once: 1981. Streep was nominated for The French Lieutenant's Woman and Hepburn won for On Golden Pond.

About the Blogathon:
"Aurora of Once Upon a Screen, Paula of Paula's Cinema Club and Kellee  of Outspoken and Freckled are hosting a new, mammoth blogathon event that coincides with Turner Classic Movies’ 31 Days of Oscar, February 1 to March 3, 2013. It’ll be a month filled with fabulous tales and screen wonders." I encourage you to check out other entries.

*Rabid Cub fan here

†SPOILER: Remember, other Blogathon participants may be tackling these topics ... Most Oscars: Three-way tie (Ben Hur, Titanic, LOTR); Biggest Box Office: adjusted for inflation, it's still GWTW; John Ford has three Oscars