10 Things Every American Should Know About Jackie Robinson

Colorado Rockies v San Diego Padres

Today is April 15 and it’s the 69th anniversary of the day Jack Roosevelt Robinson stepped onto the diamond at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, NY and broke the Major League Baseball color barrier. Major League Baseball retired Jackie’s number 42 for all teams a few years back, but each year on this day MLB celebrates by having every player on every team wear #42. It’s a beautiful tribute and an important day for reflection on how far we’ve come (and how far we still must go) toward racial equality in America.

Jackie Robinson is one of my personal heroes for several reasons. As a Brooklyn native, I am proud that my birthplace was the place where this amazing man stepped into the national spotlight. As a baseball fan, I love how he played the game. And as an American, I’m proud of how Jackie impacted race relations in America. Jackie Robinson truly represents all that is good and possible in this country.

Along with having just the right temperament needed to be the first black major leaguer, Jackie Robinson was in fact a tremendous baseball player. While his health limited him to just 10 years, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame and his statistical marks are outstanding. But this is not a post about Jackie’s baseball career, because while baseball remembers him on this day all Americans should honor Jackie Robinson for his contributions to racial justice off the field as well. For baseball fans and non-baseball fans alike, here are ten things about Jackie Robinson that every American should know:

  • In 1942 after Jackie’s graduation from UCLA (where he was the school’s first athlete to win varsity letters in four sports: baseball, basketball, football, and track) he was drafted into the Army and was later court-martialed for refusing to move to the back of a non-segregated bus. He was eventually acquitted but his trial kept him from serving overseas during WW II.
  • Following the 1956 season, with his legs hobbled from diabetes, the Dodgers traded Jackie to the crosstown rival Giants. Rather than play for the Giants, he retired and took an executive job at Chock Full o’Nuts, a chain of coffee shops with a large African-American employee base. From 1957 to 1964, Jackie was the vice president for personnel at Chock full o’Nuts; he was the first black person to serve as vice president of a major American corporation.
  • In December 1956, the NAACP recognized him with the Spingarn Medal, which it awards annually for the highest achievement by an African-American.
  • Jackie was very political and following his baseball career he was actively involved in American politics. In 1960 he campaigned for Richard Nixon because his record on race relations was better than that of Nixon’s opponent, Senator John F. Kennedy. However, following Republican opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 he switched party allegiance.
  • In 1966 Jackie was named special assistant for community affairs under New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller.
  • In the late 1960s Jackie was publicly critical of the fact that there were no African-American managers in baseball. In 1972 after reluctantly agreeing to throw out the first pitch at the World Series he said, “I’m going to be tremendously more pleased and more proud when I look at that third base coaching line one day and see a black face managing in baseball.” Frank Robinson was named the first black manager in 1974; however, Jackie did not live to see it.
  • Jackie spent a lot of time in the South during the racial unrest of the late 1960s, even appearing with Dr. Martin Luther King. Jackie was a hero to southern blacks for breaking the color barrier in baseball.
  • Jackie and his wife Rachel had a difficult time finding a suburban home to buy in the greater New York area in the 1960s because of discriminatory real estate practices. They eventually found a home in  North Stamford, Connecticut, but only after being taken in first by Simon & Schuster co-founder Richard Simon and his family (which included Simon’s young daughter Carly.)
  • Robinson’s eldest son, Jackie Robinson Jr., had emotional trouble during his childhood in part due to being one of the only black kids in Stamford. He enrolled in the Army in search of a disciplined environment, served in the Vietnam War, and was wounded in action. After his discharge, he struggled with drug problems, later became a drug counselor, and tragically was killed in a car accident at just 24 years of age. Jackie Jr.’s struggles with drugs turned Jackie Sr. into an avid anti-drug crusader later in his life.
  • Jackie suffered from diabetes and heart disease at a young age and died of a heart attack on Oct. 24, 1972. He was just 53 years old.

If you haven’t seen it yet, there’s a great new documentary by Ken Burns on PBS about Jackie’s life. Look for it on TV or watch it online here.

From Russia With Love?

dna

Yesterday my ancestry research introduced me to the term Landsmanschaft, which is German for “cultural society”. When Jewish immigrants arrived in the U.S., they joined societies made up of other immigrants from their village. One of the many things these societies did was provide for burial in the society area of cemeteries. It turns out, if you know the name of the society where your Jewish ancestors are buried, you can find out what town they came from in the old country. There’s even a neat database where you can plug in the name of the society and it’ll tell you the town it’s affiliated with. So, mystery solved — the Gutmans (including my great grandfather Samuel and his brothers and sisters, as well as his parents Benjamin and Mollie) came to New York around 1900 from a village called Pechora in central Ukraine.

But before I buy a Ukrainian flag and celebrate my new found ancestral home, it should be noted that the reason they were in Pechora in the first place was likely because around 1800 Russian Empress Catherine II declared that all of the region’s Jews were to be relocated into one area of the empire known as the Pale of Settlement. Once they got to the Pale, they were considered second class citizens and eventually the locals started burning down their homes and businesses and killing them in what were called pogroms. I suspect that by 1900 my ancestors knew they were in danger and decided to get out of dodge and head to America. It’s a good thing they did, because a few decades later Pechora became home to a German concentration camp and thousands of Jews were killed and buried in mass graves.

I don’t know from where my ancestors were forced out of in order to end up in Pechora, but I suspect the non-Semites didn’t like them there either. It was probably some other part of Russia, but it’s tough to identify with any country that hated your ancestors enough to round them up, force them out and/or kill them. So am I Russian? Ukrainian? Something else? My DNA suggests my bloodline is mostly Eastern European and West Asian. Of course, I believe all mankind came from the first humans who came into existence in Northern Africa. Does that make me African?

Which leads to an even more esoteric question: aren’t we all African? Americans typically have a lot of pride in their heritage or “home country.” We like to identify as Irish Americans or Italian Americans or African Americans. But it’s not that cut and dry, especially if you agree with the majority of scientists who now believe that we do indeed all come from a common ancestor who lived in Africa. Here’s what National Geographic has to say:

Our species is an African one: Africa is where we first evolved, and where we have spent the majority of our time on Earth. The earliest fossils of recognizably modern Homo sapiens appear in the fossil record at Omo Kibish in Ethiopia, around 200,000 years ago.

Doing ancestry research is a fun hobby, and it definitely provides a unique window into how we got where we did. But for all the work, it’s good to remember that if we go back far enough we are all related. That’s a great lesson to keep in mind, especially in a world full of so much geographic and ethnic hate.

 

Are You Being Eaten by Lions?

My wife Leslie and I have a little saying for when things get rough: Are you being eaten by lions? The reference is from David Eggers’ outstanding book What is the What, which tells the story of a “lost boy” of the Sudan named Valentino Deng. In the book, Valentino and the other boys from his village have been forced to flee and are making their way through the Sudanese countryside without knowing where they are going or what awaits them when they get there. Every so often during this trek, a lion would randomly attack and run off with one of the boys. Thus, no matter how bad one’s life may seem, you have to keep it in perspective. After all, you could be dinner for a hungry beast.

For the past few days I have had a nasty sinus infection that has been kicking my ass. I’ve had some time to kill on the sofa, and so I’ve watched a few movies. Without really planning it, I ended up watching three movies with the common theme of people overcoming hardship. The first of these films was Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken, the tale of WWII veteran and Olympic athlete Louis Zamperini. Louie was shot down over the Pacific during WWII and after surviving nearly 50 days at sea in a tiny life raft was “saved” by the Japanese who proceeded to send him to a prisoner of war camp where he was singled out because of his Olympic pedigree. Zamperini survived and went on to live a productive life which he dedicated to the God he believes spared his life. The following day I watched Tig, the story of comedian Tig Notaro’s surprising way of handling her life after being diagnosed with breast cancer. She used comedy to cope and her attitude helped her recover, but also helped her rededicate her life to her dreams. Finally, I watched Life Itself, a documentary about the life and last days of legendary film critic Roger Ebert. This film, which not surprisingly deserves an enthusiastic thumbs up, shows us Ebert’s remarkable climb to success, but more importantly his will to survive and continue his work even after his body was ravaged with jaw and bone cancer. The dude kept smiling even when he no longer had a face. That is attitude!

All three of these films, and frankly the Eggers book as well, left me with an urgent desire to give myself a little attitude adjustment. In the weeks and months following my heart attack in 2011, I told myself I wasn’t going to take life for granted anymore and I was going to live life to its fullest. For a while, I was true to my word. I got the car of my dreams, I moved to California (and back), and I eventually got a new job that I love. But even while I was singing my own praises for these actions, I was beginning to fall back into old habits. Part of it had to do with the complacency that came with time, but in truth I have also been dealing with another medical issue that I have not been public about and which has caused me a lot of physical pain. I have been down on myself while trying to battle this issue, and it has challenged me mentally as well (and challenged my wife’s patience). It has definitely been a struggle, and throughout it I’ve tried to remind myself that it wasn’t life threatening and…well…I wasn’t being chased across the Sudanese savanna by hungry lions. Nevertheless, I was letting it keep me from doing the things I want to do in life.

These films reminded me to quit whining and get back to living life. Frankly, I was most struck by Tig Notaro’s journey. She isn’t the first person to deal with a family death and then a devastating diagnosis, but she may have been the first person ever to confront these issues on stage at a comedy club. If you don’t know the story, just days after getting diagnosed with cancer, Notaro decided to talk about it on stage. The resulting stand up routine became legendary, it went viral, and soon after Tig’s entire life changed. She became hugely famous, she did every talk show, she sold thousands of copies of her “comedy” routine, she got a TV show, and more. Here’s a few minutes of the actual routine from that night if you haven’t heard it:

You can download the entire set online if you like. Of course Tig beat cancer, but afterward she started to live the life she dreamed for herself, including finding the love of her life, getting married and having kids. She literally smiled her way through cancer. She joked about it wherever she went. She didn’t let her health issues define her. Tig Notaro understood that she wasn’t about to be eaten by a lion. She was certainly frightened, and she thought she might die, but even during the worst time in her life she kept things in perspective.

I needed this little reminder that I wasn’t about to become lion supper. My health issues are not life threatening. In fact, aside from this little battle with my sinuses I’m actually feeling better these days. For a while there, I was feeling all woe is me about life. I was starting to let it get the best of me. But Tig Nitaro is right — you gotta laugh at this shit.

Something Happened and We’re Head Over Heels

TearsForFears

Connor and I posing backstage at the Wild Horse Pass Casino with Curt Smith (left) and Roland Orzabal (right), also known as Tears For Fears.

Last Friday I blogged about the pleasures of a father sharing his love for music with his son, sparked by the Tears For Fears show that night at Wild Horse Pass in Chandler. The post apparently touched a few readers and it got shared quite a bit on Facebook and Twitter. Well, we had no idea it would lead to such a memorable moment for my son Connor and I, but that it did. Here’s the story that led to this incredible photo of Connor and I back stage with Curt Smith and Roland Orzabal.

One of my friends, Barb Harris, shared my blog post with her friend Eric Schaefer. I didn’t know Eric, who lives here in the Valley, but apparently he too is a big Tears For Fears fan and somehow over the years he had befriended none other than Curt Smith. Well, Eric enjoyed my blog post so much that he tweeted a link to Curt Smith. A little while later, I had two new followers on Twitter — Eric and Curt! Imagine how I felt when I was notified that I had a new follower and it was one of my musical heroes!

But the story gets better. A few hours later, Eric sent me a note that there would be two backstage passes for Connor and I at the box office and that after the show we were going to get to meet Tears For Fears. Eric and his daughter went to the venue early to meet up with Curt and apparently Curt was touched by my post. Needless to say Connor and I were thrilled. We drove over to the venue, picked up our passes, and went into the theater to watch the show.

The concert was spectacular — I had seen Tears For Fears three times previously, but it was obviously Connor’s first TFF show and it was really great to enjoy it along with him. At the end of the show we lined up at the back of the theater to be escorted back stage to get our photo with Curt and Roland. As we moved our way up to the front of the line and got closer to the band, we noticed Curt looking our way. Then he caught our attention and said, “Are you Connor?”

He proceeded to give Connor a hard time about having a beard, then we chit chatted a bit while we took our photo. Roland was quite shy, but I decided to put my arm around him anyway! Curt seemed genuinely pleased to meet Connor and it was certainly more than we expected. He gave Connor a nice firm handshake as we left and thanked us for coming. As we walked out of the theater we couldn’t believe how the day turned out. It was a father-son bonding experience that we will never forget.

That’s the thing about social media — you just never know who might be paying attention.

A Very Public Love Letter

00001060Let’s be honest, when it comes to marriage I am a major overachiever. Just take a look at this photo for all the proof you need. How the hell did Farmer Ted from Sixteen Candles score the hottest girl in town? I must have had a great personality.

Today is my bride’s 45th birthday. But when I look at her now I still see this gorgeous young object of my desires. Sure, she has remained remarkably youthful in appearance, something she adorably credits to Dove moisturizing bars. But I think it’s more than that. I think she lives her life with a youthful exuberance, something I find very difficult to do but it seems to be embedded in her DNA.  Sometimes we’ll be sitting on the sofa surfing the web on our devices and she’ll just start giggling and I realize she’s still a little girl at heart. I’m jealous of that attribute.

It’s no secret I’ve had a rough couple of years health wise. I’ve been very public about my heart attack but in truth there have been a few other issues I’ve kept more private. The good news is I’m doing great, but health issues will certainly put a strain on a relationship. I’d like to publicly thank Leslie for being there for me and for being so strong, not only dealing with my mood swings but taking such good care of me. The marriage vows may feel a bit cliché, but I really understand the meaning of “for better or for worse, in sickness and in health.” They also say married men live longer, and I am a true believer in that cliché as well. Throughout this ordeal she has been by my side, taking notes at doctors appointments, cooking healthy food for me, nudging me (sometime shoving me) when I attempt to make a bad food choice, and generally advocating for my health. I am lucky as hell and if you ever have a health issue I hope you have your own Leslie by your side to help you along.

But back to her 21658_4928203685754_1864494528_nyouthful appearance. Check out this photo taken recently. This is Leslie as she hits her mid-40s. Compare it to the one above, taken when she was around 23. Can you say fountain of youth? The girl still gets carded on occasion for crying out loud! Yep, she’s still fucking gorgeous.

But more important than her external beauty is her internal beauty. She’s a loving, caring, generous and warm person. She goes out of her way to help people, even people she barely knows. I think that’s one reason she has been so successful at her job for going on 21 years. She doesn’t just think of customer service as a job, it’s also in her DNA. She would literally give you the shirt off her back if you needed it.

Leslie is also the most amazing mother you’ve ever seen. We have some friends who had kids with very serious health issues and the doctors were useless. The mom took it upon herself to learn everything she could about her kids conditions and even when doctors gave up she kept pushing and pushing until she helped identify a treatment. It’s basically a Lorenzo’s Oil situation. Well, Leslie likes to give lots of credit to those particular parents but when I think about what she’s done for our son I think she’s the superhero. Luckily Connor’s health issues have never been life threatening, but they have been a  constant pain in the rear and Leslie has been relentless in her pursuit of better health for him. At 16 he is now in the best health of his life and you can see how his quality of life has improved. I know she’ll say that’s just her job as a mom, but trust me when I say she is a hero.

We are coming up on our 21st wedding anniversary. For those of you who are married, you understand what a feat that is. It’s remarkable that one of us hasn’t killed the other yet. And while we’ve had our share of downs, the ups have far outweighed them. We’ve made some stupid decisions (like moving to Atlanta, and moving to San Diego) but we’ve made some great decisions (having a kid, moving to Phoenix, moving back to Phoenix, moving back to Phoenix again) and through it all we’ve stayed by each other’s side. No matter what we do, Leslie always creates a path to making things better. She has counseled me through multiple job changes and a career change, she cheered me as I went back to school to get a master’s that I don’t use, she stood by me when my dad got sick, and kept her family strong when her mother died. She plans every vacation, every major purchase, every detail of our lives. She’s even getting better at letting go of planning things when Connor and I want to go with the flow even though it’s hard for her.

I like to say Leslie is high maintenance but worth it. I think she’s finally comfortable with that description. In fact, she’s embraced it. And I should also mention (stop reading right now if you’re under 18) that she still knows how to rev up my engines. Sure things have slowed down in the intimacy department, but for crying out loud we’re middle-aged! We work hard and we’re tired all the time! But we still got it baby! Almost 21 years and she still knows how to surprise me.

45 is a monumental birthday. You’re closer to 50 than 40, and that milestone has got to be epic. But if you know Leslie I bet you find it difficult to believe she’s 45 today. I sure do. Because when I think of her in my mind’s eye I always think of that photo above with her sitting on my lap and how amazing I felt that a girl like that would go out with a guy like me. That’s my favorite picture of Leslie in case it isn’t obvious. And twentysomething years later sometimes I walk into the house after work and look at her and I still see that young woman and that big smile and I think,no, I know, I’m the luckiest guy in the world.

Happy Birthday Leslie Gutman!

 

AFI #12: The Searchers

“I don’t feel we did wrong in taking this great country away from them, if that’s what you’re asking. Our so-called stealing of this country from them was just a matter of survival. There were great numbers of people who needed new land, and the Indians were selfishly trying to keep it for themselves.” — John Wayne, 1971

I’ve never been a fan of John Wayne. I find his real life persona so despicable (see the above quote for example) that I can’t get past it when I see him in films. So I was not looking forward to screening The Searchers, which is considered by many critics to be not only a great Western but one of the best films in American cinema history. After seeing it today, I have one thing to say: poppycock!

searchersI have never had such a visceral reaction to a film in my life. Yes, I was biased from the git-go given my feelings toward the Duke, but I don’t know how anyone can watch this film and not think it’s one of the most racist films ever shot. The story is simple. A Civil War veteran (Wayne) returns home to the Texas territory just as a band of marauding Comanche Indians ransack his family home, kill the adults and steal the women. Wayne then spends the rest of the film hunting down the tribe who killed his relatives to seek revenge and retrieve his niece. I get that this film was shot in 1956, but for me that doesn’t excuse the blatant racism and vitriol spewed from Wayne’s mouth regarding the Native Americans. It’s quite disgusting really, especially when you consider Wayne’s real life racist rants about Native Americans and other minority groups. The film treats the Comanche tribe as if they are subhuman, going so far as to imply that the women who are taken by the tribe “go Injun” to the point that they are no longer human or even worth bringing back into society. I seriously couldn’t get past the racism to make a decision as to the artistic merits of the film.

I have read some meaty reviews and commentary about The Searchers. Scorsese thinks it’s a great film. Academic papers have been written on John Ford’s technique and the subtext of the plot relative to one man’s search for something (in this case his niece). Supposedly it influenced a lot of today’s great directors and paved the way for great films like Dances With Wolves. Maybe that was Ford’s point — to make a Western in which white America’s hatred and disdain for the Native Americans is portrayed in all its ugliness and that was his commentary. If that’s the case, why is there no realization by the characters that their racism is wrong? Dances With Wolves is a tribute to the Native Americans of the same time period. It’s a much better film than The Searchers yet it didn’t even make the AFI list.

Next: City Lights

AFI #32: The Godfather Part II

It’s pretty much impossible to review The Godfather Part II out of context from The Godfather because the stories are so intertwined it’s truly one long film. In fact, as most fans know the films were in fact combined in a later release that told the story chronologically, and some believe this is in fact the best way to view The Godfather story. I won’t go that far, but again I think the stories are so connected it’s not fair to review one without discussing the other.

That being said, I’ll try. I will reserve final judgment about which film I think is better for after I view The Godfather again as part of this quest, but it should be noted that part two comes in at #32 on this list and the original is #2. Having seen both several times I find it hard to disagree, and in fact watching The Godfather Part II again yesterday for this review I was struck by how weird it feels as a standalone film. Part two serves two purposes really — one is to introduce how Vito Corleone got his start in the family business and the other is to witness how Michael Corleone completes his father’s work and ends up bringing the family to the point of both ultimate power and internal demise at once. Michael foreshadows this midway through the film when he asks his mother if it’s possible to help the family while at the same time losing it. Clearly it is.

For me the parts of the film about Michael show how power creates paranoia. Michael becomes so obsessed with trying to figure out who tried to kill him that he eventually blames all of his so-called enemies and brings them all down. At the same time, he brings down his family and at the end he’s left with ultimate power but he’s all alone. This is in contrast to Vito’s quest for power, which we learn from the film comes as a result of circumstances. Vito is witness to the murder of his father, his brother and his mother. By heading off to America he rescues himself from the same fate, but ultimately his circumstances in New York also lead him to crime. I think it’s clear Vito had an innate ability within him to be a criminal, but it isn’t until he loses his job and becomes desperate to provide for his family does he let the criminal out. And we know from part one of the film that Vito is a brutal criminal, but his motivation is always the betterment of the family. Michael did not learn this lesson from his father.

Is The Godfather Part II a great film? I’m not so sure. It’s disjointed and the past vs present elements get confusing. Also, not a whole lot really happens in part two other than Michael wiping out the last of his enemies. The great lines that so many of us men quote are mostly from part one, though there are a few gems in part two (I know it was you, Fredo. You broke my heart. You broke my heart!). But for me the film is much ado about nothing. Again, it’s all part of a great story, but on its own part two doesn’t have as much to offer as part one.

Of course, the Academy didn’t see it that way. It doled out six Oscars including Best Picture (it beat Chinatown, which I think is a better film and if AFI counts for anything it does as well). Robert DeNiro won for Best Actor and Al Pacino, Talia Shire, Lee Strasberg and Michael Gazzo were nominated for acting. Frances Ford Coppola won best director and the film also won Oscars for art direction, music and writing.

The Godfather Part II is a great film, no doubt. But really it’s only great when considered in context of the Godfather saga.

Next Up: The Maltese Falcon

How to Feel Alive

For obvious reasons I have been thinking a lot about life these days, and this week I had two totally unrelated experiences I’d like to share. Just observations…no epiphanies here.

On Tuesday morning I was stuck in traffic on I-10 and as I’m sitting there listening to music and enjoying the morning the car next to me got slammed into by the car behind it. It was not a soft bump…the car that did the plowing into was smashed pretty good. The guy in the car that got hit was rightfully pissed, but a couple of things came to mind as I sped off (everyone was fine by the way). Mainly I thought how fucking random life is. I was inches away from getting my new car rear-ended, but it happened to the guy next to me instead. At the same time, the accident happened right in front of a highway patrolman who was off to the side of the diamond lane waiting to ticket solo drivers. The guy who got hit simply rolled down his window and called to the cop and within minutes I’m sure they were safely off to the shoulder. Crazy how things like that happen.

Last night on the flight home from San Francisco I was reading Greg Graffin’s book Anarchy Evolution. For those of you who don’t know who Greg is, he’s the lead singer of a punk band called Bad Religion and he also happens to have a PhD from Cornell and teaches evolutionary biology at UCLA when he’s not touring. The connection to the car wreck is that one of the chapters I read on the plane last night was about how natural selection alone is not the only thing that influences evolution — there’s a crap load of plain old luck involved. Luck like not getting hit by that car. Luck like surviving a heart attack (or “luck” in even having a heart attack). I wouldn’t call it fate, and I definitely don’t believe it’s part of some grand design…you can only make so many choices yet some things are left to chance. I couldn’t have planned for my heart attack any more than the guy in the car couldn’t have planned to get rear ended. As Mike Tyson once famously said about his opponents in the ring — everyone has a plan until they get hit.

I think the point for me in all of this is to not over-think things. One day you’re driving down the freeway minding your own business and some idiot smashes into you. One day a co-worker quits and you get a promotion. One day you run into an old friend on the city streets of a town you’re visiting. One day you have a heart attack. You never know what life has in store.

The other thing that is floating around in my brain this morning is how alive I felt in San Francisco this week. Yesterday morning I was sitting in Starbucks having a bowl of oatmeal and a latte and I sat there quietly watching all of the people coming and going. Everyone was in a rush and zipping around on their way to work…it was surreal to sit there calmly observing. A little later I was walking down Market Street on the way to the office finishing my latte and I was in no real rush to get to the office. But the street was buzzing with energy. People running to catch buses, folks climbing up the stairs from the BART station, people walking briskly to work in all directions. It was a beautiful morning and I just took it all in and I felt totally alive. It was like I was part of some larger organism called The City and we were all connected. It must be amazing to live in a big city like San Francisco and experience that every day. I wonder if people realize how much energy is all around them. I doubt it…but I highly recommend every so often simply soaking in everything that is going on around you — it’s life affirming! That being said, I like living in suburban Phoenix. But it’s sure fun to visit the big city once in a while to feel that rush of excitement.

AFI #69: Tootsie

One way to tell if some of the films on the AFI list hold up is if Connor enjoys them. A film that translates well across generations surely must be a worthy film. Given that, 1982’s  Tootsie definitely belongs on the AFI list.

Tootsie is a funny film that doesn’t rely on the silliness of Dustin Hoffman in drag to get laughs but rather provides its laughs through the brilliant writing of Larry Gelbart and others. Sure, Hoffman is not exactly an attractive woman, and there are a few moments of physical humor thrown in because it’s always funny when a man tries to walk in heels, but the dialogue makes this film so amazing. Here’s an example of my favorite rant by out-of-work actor Michael Dorsey:

Michael Dorsey: Are you saying that nobody in New York will work with me?
George Fields: No, no, that’s too limited… nobody in Hollywood wants to work with you either. I can’t even set you up for a commercial. You played a *tomato* for 30 seconds – they went a half a day over schedule because you wouldn’t sit down.
Michael Dorsey: Of course. It was illogical.
George Fields: YOU WERE A TOMATO. A tomato doesn’t have logic. A tomato can’t move.
Michael Dorsey: That’s what I said. So if he can’t move, how’s he gonna sit down, George? I was a stand-up tomato: a juicy, sexy, beefsteak tomato. Nobody does vegetables like me. I did an evening of vegetables off-Broadway. I did the best tomato, the best cucumber… I did an endive salad that knocked the critics on their ass.

A juicy, sexy beefsteak tomato! And some of the best lines are left to Michael’s playwright roommate Jeff, played deadpan by Bill Murray. Teri Garr is classic, and Charles Durning is great as Jessica Lange’s smitten dad. And Dabney Coleman is perfect as the chauvinistic soap director. Jessica Lange was just ok, but somehow she managed to get an Academy Award for best supporting actress. You gotta feel for Dustin Hoffman being nominated against Ben Kingsley for Gandhi — he never had a chance. Gandhi also rightfully beat Tootsie for best picture.

I can’t provide praise for Tootsie though without saying something about director Sydney Pollack, who not only directed the film but acted in it as well, stealing some scenes as agent George Fields. Pollack was a great director who along with Tootsie is well known for directing Absence of Malice, Out of Africa, The Way We Were, The Firm and many more. Pollack liked to act as well and over his career he had some memorable roles, none better than George Fields. He made some cameos in Entourage, The Sopranos, Michael Clayton, Husbands and Wives, and many more. The guy was a Renaissance man and we lost him too young.

Next Up: Unforgiven

AFI #77: All the President’s Men

I was 10 year’s old when All the President’s Men came out and I remember going to see it with my family at the Campus Drive-in on El Cajon Blvd. in San Diego. I know it may be hard to believe, but the film had a major impact on me even at that young age. I knew then I wanted to be a journalist. Over 30 years have gone by and I’ve probably seen the film a dozen times or so, and each time I am glued to the action as if I had no idea of the outcome. Watching it yesterday was no different — it is undoubtedly one of my all-time favorite movies. But as a bonus, this time Connor watched it with me and he loved it! How cool is that?

It seems to me that Watergate marked a critical turning point in American politics. I’m sure we knew politics wasn’t all pretty, but when the events of the break-in and cover up came to light in such a public way America lost its innocence about just how corrupt government can be. If you look back at the record, Nixon wasn’t such a bad president — he was just a bad person. In the nearly 40 years since Watergate we have come to expect that politics is a dirty game played by people who most likely don’t have our country’s best interests in mind. Reagan began to divide us along ideological terms, Bush continued his legacy, Clinton created  a mockery of the office with his sexual exploits, Bush Jr. used the office to advance his personal agendas and now a weak and vision-less Obama presides over a fully corrupt government that can’t even agree on what to disagree on. At least during Watergate Americans pretty much agreed on the fact that Nixon was a crook. But looking back the frat boy antics of Watergate seem like child’s play compared to going to war without cause, purposely dividing the nation along class and moral boundaries and bailing out special interests. Should we long for the days of Watergate?

All the President’s Men is wonderful because it’s a great detective film, with Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein as Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe. And of course it’s even more compelling because it is based on fact rather than fiction. It features great acting and powerful moments of realization. It also features some very cool directing by Alan Pakula, especially in the way he weaves in real footage. I love, for example, the scene where Woodward and Bernstein are working alone in the newsroom while the rest of the staff are gathered around the TVs watching Nixon being sworn in for a second term. The Nixon swearing-in is real footage which makes the scene feel even more real. Pakula does this several times during the film and it’s very unique. And of course the film is chock full of great performances by Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman, Jack Warden, Hal Holbrook and more. Interestingly only Jason Robards, for his portrayal of Ben Bradlee,  won the Oscar. In fact, All the President’s Men didn’t win for Best Picture. It was nominated along with Rocky, Network, Taxi Driver and Bound for Glory. That’s a hell of a year for film — Rocky won by the way!

All the President’s Men made journalism seem important and romantic. It was a noble calling. I remember reading David Halbertam’s The Powers that Be in college and thinking being a journalist was one of the most important jobs in the country. How many of us feel that way today? Journalism itself has fallen victim to the times of division. We either watch Fox or MSNBC. We believe the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal, but not both. Local news has become nothing more than the crime report and a vehicle for advertisements. The Internet has given us the ability to read more news than ever, but none of it has any teeth — the lie of “balance” has given way to articles with no heart and mind. The Fourth Estate has become just another tool for the corporatocracy.

Regardless of how you feel about journalism, All the President’s Men surely harkens back to a different time. It’s a great film and an important film. And just like then, today if you want to know who is in charge of things all you have to do is what Deep Throat said to Bob Woodward — follow the money!

Next Up: Forrest Gump