Diana Krall (Crazy); W.C. Handy (St. Louis Blues/Nat Cole) & George Kaufman (Night at the Opera) - Happy Birthday!
You know who she is. You don't need me to tell you. Born in Canada on this day in 1964, here she is performing "Crazy" with composer, Willie Nelson, and her husband, Elvis Costello.
Known as "Father of the Blues," William Christopher Handy was born in Florence, Alabama, in 1873 on this day. You don't think of blues musicians as being "educated" in the book-learning sense, but Handy was. He had the good sense to travel around the south, listening to the folk melodies that were part of indentured African-American experience and to incorporate that down-on-the-plantation, up-from-the-field music into his own compositions. You can easily find scratchy old recordings of one of his most famous compositions, "The St. Louis Blues," these days, as well as covers by lots of other folks.
George S. Kaufman
Born this day in 1889, this American playwright is known for his collaborations with Moss Hart, Ira Gershwin, and Edna Ferber. He won the Pulitzer twice and a Tony for directing Guys and Dolls. You Can't Take It with You, Dinner at Eight, and Of Thee I Sing, are among his hit plays. His Marx Brothers collaborations are still funny after all these years. Take a look at the clip below from Night at the Opera.
Born this day in 1887, she is the quintessential artist. Not only was she a photographic model for her husband, Alfred Stieglitz, who may have exploited their intimacy by exhibiting his private photographs of her, but was - and is - a model for the rest of us who want to live lives that reflect our values. Independent, creative, in touch with the natural world, she continues to inspire. Most of us recognize her famous flower paintings. But take a look at the beautifully edited piece below, put together by "starrynight003." Her landscapes are lovely, too.
Born in Buenos Aires on this day in 1942, this Israeli-Argentine pianist and conductor has won seven Grammy Awards, received a knighthood, and racked up more honors than you can shake a stick at. A charismatic figure in his own right, he was famously married to the equally charismatic cellist, Jacqueline Du Pre. Much has been written about her tragic illness, and as outsiders, we can never really know what their relationship was like. However, there was a moment before their troubles set in, when they shared something remarkable as artists. The following clip from an early recording session shows some of the joy they ignited in each other, which found its way into music.
Born this day in 1920, this wonderful painter turns 93 today. The clip below is from an interview conducted five years ago. Love what he says about painting anthologizing the sum human consciousness from all of our sides, from the majestic and spiritual all the way down to brute terror and the tremendous inhumanity of man. As one of the YouTube comments points out, this man is a national treasure.
TAGS: Truth & Beauty, Muses & Music, Famous Birthdays
Moby Dick, or The Whale
It was on this day in 1851 that this novel, now regarded as one of the great American classics, was brought out by Harper & Brothers of New York. They didn't make much money on it. From a commercial standpoint, it was a failure. The author, Herman Melville, and his publishers must have been mad. Why would anyone want to read about a peg-legged whaling-ship captain seeking revenge on the whale that took off half his leg? Why indeed. Of course, we all know by now that this novel is about much more than that. Even folks who haven't read the book know its famous first line: "Call me Ishmael," which is said to be one of the most famous first lines in the history of literature. And of course, who hasn't heard of Starbuck, whose character has given his name to the modern latte empire?
But do they know this part? "All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks...If man will strike, strike through the mask! ...That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I'd strike the sun if it insulted me."
Both the content and the language of this speech and many others are difficult for today's readers. For us, everything comes too easy. It's a good thing we have people like Gregory Peck in this scene from the 1956 film helping us to understand.
An extraordinary woman by any measure, Condi was born this day in 1954. Concert pianist, Stanford University Provost, Secretary of State. Wow. Off the charts, wow. No one has said it better than Oprah in the following clip. Happy Birthday, Condi!
Even folks who don't know classical music know this composer (born this day in 1900) for his Fanfare for the Common Man. Here it is now, followed by the great Martha Graham in the opening scene of Appalachian Spring.
This master of Impressionism was born November 14, 1840. Here's a tribute to his timeless art.
Robert Louis Stevenson
He was only to get 44 years on the planet, but during that time, which began on this day in 1850, he gave us Kidnapped, Treasure island, and a Child's Garden of Verse. But be honest, it's really Jekyll and Hyde that come first to mind when you think of this writer's work. Here are two transformation scenes from films of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The first is John Barrymore's brilliant silent version from 1920. The second is Spencer Tracy's from 1941.
Even at a distance of 34 years, the untimely death of Jean Seberg is still troubling. Though we wish to remember her birth on this day in 1938 and will presently remember her starring role in Preminger's Saint Joan and a year later, Bonjour, Tristesse, we cannot forget that she was the victim of a defamation campaign by the FBI during its counter-intelligence program known as COINTELPRO. Although ruled a "probable suicide," her death from an overdose of barbiturates left behind many unanswered questions. The government's involvement, to whatever extent, in the life of a private American citizen, led to a Time Magazine cover story and an investigation by the U.S. Senate. These issues resonate now as Snowden, Wiki-Leaks, and the NSA roil the news. Whatever her personal weaknesses or private difficulties, the intrusion of the FBI into her life has turned her into a kind of martyr. How very interesting that is, given her 1957 role in Saint Joan. But you know how it is: Art imitates life; then life imitates Art. And it is a difficult thing for an actor to keep one separate from the other. Here's a link to the "Can they unburn me" scene from Saint Joan. Below is a brief clip from the opening of Bonjour, Tristesse, Preminger's 1958 film version of the novel by 18-year-old Francoise Sagan.
Can it have been 23 years since Whoopi made Ghost and won an Oscar for it? Is it possible that there are grown people walking around today who know her only for The View? Surely not. There's Sister Act (I and II), The Color Purple, and so much more. Here's the $4-million-dollar-scene from Ghost. Watching it, you almost understand why she had to come back as a nun in Sister Act, the final number from which follows just after.
Wally Shawn (My Dinner with Andre) Born Today; Also, Rodin (Filmed in His Studio) & Anne Hathaway (Devil/Prada)
Put him in a line-up with a dozen hunky guys, and you'd never guess that Wally Shawn is the playwright, essayist and actor whose credits include Woody Allen's Manhattan, Toy Story, Murphy Brown, The Incredibles - and of course, Louis Malle's phenomenal two-man tour de force, My Dinner with Andre, a few mind-blowing moments of which are included in the clip below. Happy Birthday Number 70, Wally!
Born this day in 1840, this French sculptor gave us The Kiss, The Burghers of Calais, and The Thinker. It's impossible to show that moment during the creative process when, as Ingmar Bergman once said, the artist ceases to exist, becomes, as it were, invisible. But at least this scratchy old clip gives us some idea of what the physical Rodin looked like while at work in his studio.
Yes, we all know by now that Anne Hathaway, born this day 31 years ago, won a much deserved Oscar for Les Miserables. But wasn't she also amazing in Rachel Getting Married? For many of us, that was the film that told us she knew how to go deep.
It is documented that Fyodor Dostoevsky was born this day in 1821, but it can also be argued that the great Russian writer whose work we admire today was really born after his arrest in 1849, when, as he was standing before a firing squad, a note of clemency was delivered commuting his sentence from death to four years at hard labor. I'm parroting Irrational Man, William Barrett's book on existentialism, here, but the point is well taken. To be certain that you are going to die, to find yourself in the moment when it is sure to come and you have no reason to believe anything but that final destination is upon you, and then to be released - there is no way you will ever be the same afterward. So our thanks to the Czar for delivering into our hearts and minds one of the greatest novelists in history. If you suffered through Crime and Punishment in your youth, try reading it again as an adult. If you're still struggling to get your mind around The Brothers Karamazov, you could start with this clip from the 1958 film starring Yul Brenner, and yes, that is the ubiquitous William Shatner, eight years before Captain Kirk, as Alexei.
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
God bless you, Mr. Vonnegut (born this day in 1922). And thanks for Player Piano, Cat's Cradle, Mr. Rosewater, and the idea of the centipede in Slaughterhouse Five. You know you're doing something right when they burn your books (as was done in Drake, North Dakota, in 1973), though it's hard to understand why anyone would not want others to read Slaughterhouse. Unless it cuts too close to the truth, and the only thing they can think of to justify narrow-mindedness is to say that it is "unwholesome." Really? Because it blends fact and fiction? Because it uses the MF-word once in a line of dialogue? Or because it speaks about the unnecessary Allied bombing of Dresden during World War II? Here's the trailer from the film version. But the book, of course, is a thousand times better.
We all know that Leonardo (born this day in 1974) is the "king of the world." He recently brought life to Gatsby and gave us an unforgettable portrayal of Howard Hughes in The Aviator. But did you know he also worked with Woody Allen? Here's a clip from Celebrity. He's not so lovable here as in Catch Me If You Can or Titanic. In fact, the woman-beating may not be for everyone. Viewer discretion advised. (As I watch this, however, I am reminded of something James Earl Jones once told me during an interview back in the day. "If I play a cop in one film, I want to play a criminal in the next." It's an actor's way, Jones said, of keeping his balance. Perhaps that's why the hero of the sinking-ship saga needed to play something of an antihero in the Allen film one year later.)
Come on, when you think of Calista (who turns 49 today), Brothers and Sisters is not the first thing that comes to mind. She's Ally McBeal, and here's that scene with Lucy Liu that caused a lot of controversy back in the day. Once again, viewer discretion is advised. If you are offended by sexually suggestive content involving two humans of the same gender, you'd best leave this one alone.
Best known for her roles in the films of Ingmar Bergman, this remarkable Swedish actress turns 78 today. She's in The Seventh Seal, The Passion of Ana, Wild Strawberries, and of course, Persona. Here's a clip from that great film, which also stars Liv Ullmann as the famous actress who has lost her ability to speak until the moment depicted in this scene.
If you're African-American, as I am, you can't read Margaret Mitchell's stupendous novel - or see the movie - without giving thanks for how far we've come. From a black point of view, it's terribly racist, but what does one expect? It's a document written during segregation by a Southern white woman about a time when the entire south was chained down by the institution of slavery. Though she would amend her views after the book was published, I'm happy Mitchell (born this day in 1900) filled her famous novel with unreconstructed attitudes and perceptions. Others disagree, but I want to know where we've come from, and I'm grateful for documents that provide some glimpse of that.
We live in times when there's so much that's counterfeit about human interaction. Everyone knows you can't be openly racist these days. But attitudes passed on from one generation to the next die hard. You can't separate the artist from her work, but it's interesting to note that Mitchell, confronted with her novel's racism after the fact, secretly gave money to Dr. Benjamin Mays in support of Morehouse College, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., like many other black leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, did his undergraduate work. We are all connected, and sometimes a negative gives rise to a positive. Here's a nicely edited clip showing scenes from Gone with the Wind. A link to the PBS documentary on Mitchell's life is here.
Few have done more to counter the negative stereotypes found in Mitchell's novel that Alfre Woodard, who was born this day in 1961. Here she is reading Sojourner Truth's "Ain't I a Woman." Happy Birthday, Alfre.
TAGS: Famous Birthdays, Historical Figures & Events
Albert Camus (Nobel Prize & The Stranger) Born; Also Joni Mitchell, Free Man/Paris; Joan Sutherland, Casta Diva
As today's NPR story by Eleanor Beardsley makes clear, Camus is still controversial 100 years after his birth. You can listen to her report here to understand why. Then, if you have time, you might want to take a few minutes to check out this clip from Visconti's 1967 film version of The Stranger and the short BBC clip that provides more insight into why Camus was ostracized after winning the Nobel Prize.
TAGS: Writers & Writing, Famous Birthdays
She may have been born in Canada, but this singer, songwriter, painter, and overall extraordinary human being, was also a "Free Man in Paris." Here she is singing that song during a live concert at London's Wembley Arena in 1983. She turns 70 today, but as her fans have long understood, she was always far older than years.
This Aussie Diva, born today in 1926, was one of the great coloratura sopranos of opera's bel canto repertoire. Here she is in a breathtaking performance of "Casta Diva" from Bellini's Norma.
TAGS: Famous Birthdays, Muses & Music
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