The master of the gleefuly macabre would have been 87 today, had he not died in 2000.
The master of the gleefuly macabre would have been 87 today, had he not died in 2000.
Twain the rabble-rouser once wrote: "Concerning the difference between man and the jackass: Some observers hold that there isn't any. But this wrongs the jackass." (Mark Twain's Notebook, 1898)
What else was this man, born 176 years ago today, besides a wicked wit? He was a heavy smoker -- lighting up 20 to 40 cigars a day, according to the Mark Twain Papers project at UC Berkeley. Also, he was a huge celebrity and "a lover of music and song," according to the project. "He was an enthusiastic inventor, an obsessive billiards player, a charismatic raconteur, a mischievous correspondent and perhaps the most sought-after luncheon and dinner guest in America."
Twain the inventor received three patents in the late 1880s: for an adjustable garment strap, a scrapbook with pre-gummed pages and an educational board game with historical dates and facts. Among his occupations was steamboat pilot in the Mississippi River at age 23, reporter and California prospector.
His life was touched by tragedy. There was a bankruptcy that nearly broke him, but he was especially affected by the deaths of two women. His 24-year-old daughter, adviser and confidante, Susy Clemens, died in 1896 of meningitis. And in 1904, his beloved wife, Livy, died after a lengthy illness.
A few weeks after his wife's death, he wrote: "I cannot reproduce Livy's face in my mind's eye. I was never in my life able to reproduce a face. It is a curious infirmity — & now at last I realize it is a calamity."
A new century has brought new attention and appreciation for this amazing mind.
Last year, fans got a new dose of Twain with the publication of the first, unexpurgated volume of his autobiography. Two more volumes of the autobiography are in the wings. Previous versions of his autobiography were heavily edited by the original editor.
"The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" turned 125 years old last year, but it may seem as fresh as if the tale were spun out yesterday on someone's MacBook. L.A. Times book critic David Ulin said that, with "Finn," Twain "invented a new kind of American language."
"All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called 'Huckleberry Finn,'" Ernest Hemingway famously declared in 1935. "It's the best book we've had. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since."
And just in time for Christmas: a two-CD set, “Mark Twain Words & Music.” It's the "modern-day equivalent of a radio play," writes The Times' Randy Lewis. It combines Twain's words with songs delivered by artists including Emmylou Harris, Brad Paisley, Vince Gill, Ricky Skaggs, Rhonda Vincent and Doyle Lawson. Garrison Keillor narrates, with Jimmy Buffett acting as the voice of Huck Finn. Clint Eastwood recites passages from Twain's autobiography
Pepper-Spray Incident Spawns RemixesBy JENNA WORTHAM and NICK BILTON
Then, almost as quickly, a cutout of Lt. John Pike of the University of California, Davis, wielding a pepper spray canister caught fire across the Web, transforming almost instantly into an Internet meme and appearing on popular social networking sites like Reddit, Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr.
Handy Photoshoppers grafted the image of the officer, dressed in riot gear, onto images of tiny kittens, characters from Star Wars, video game posters, famous pieces of art — even the cover of Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon.”
The Web site Know Your Meme, which chronicles memes as they spread across the Web, labeled Lieutenant Pike the “Casually Pepper Spray Everything Cop.” The Web site described the meme as follows: “The affable officer was viewed through various forms of media whimsically applying a judicious, and well allocated portion of pepper spray among the line of protesters.”
The goofy images are more than likely to generate a laugh — but that doesn’t necessarily mean they trivialize or diminish the gravity of the original incident on Friday. In fact, it might actually raise awareness among an online audience that didn’t know about the event, said Matt Stopera, an editor at BuzzFeed, in an NPR interview.
“The fact that it’s spreading on Tumblr means that it’s getting to a whole other, younger audience,” he said in the interview. “When you see this image, you wonder, why is the guy pepper-spraying? You go to Google and search it and see the video. The video is so powerful I think it can only get more eyes on it.”
Lieutenant Pike is not the only one who is receiving the royal meme treatment online. The spray can that was used to douse students is getting its own special treatment.
On Amazon, for example, the page of a pepper spray can that is similar to the one used by Lieutenant Pike now has “product images” of the spray being used on students. There are also several product reviews that poke fun at the police department.
Andy Rooney, who has delivered his trademark witty commentary on "60 Minutes" since 1978, is stepping away from the CBS newsmagazine. Rooney, 92, will make his last regular appearance on the series on Sunday.
A release from "60 Minutes" gave no reason for Rooney's departure, but he will outline the announcement in his regular essay at the conclusion of the broadcast, which will mark his 1,097th essay for "60 Minutes." Rooney's commentary will be preceded by a segment in which Rooney will reflect on his career during an interview with Morley Safer.
Jeff Fager, chairman of CBS News and the executive producer of "60 Minutes," said in a statement, "There's nobody like Andy and there will never be. He'll hate hearing this, but he's an American original. His contributions to '60 Minutes' are immeasurable; he's also a great friend. It's harder for him to do it every week, but he will always have the ability to speak his mind on '60 Minutes' when the urge hits him."
Rooney also provoked controversy. He was suspended without pay by CBS News for three months in 1990 in response to complaints that he had made offensive comments about blacks and homosexuals.
Rooney's first essay for "60 Minutes" in 1978 was a report about automobile fatalities on the Independence Day weekend. He became a regular feature that fall, alternating weeks with the dueling James J. Kilpatrick and Shana Alexander before getting the end slot all to himself in the fall of 1979.
He also produced "60 Minutes" segments for Harry Reasoner during the broadcast's first few seasons.
Photo: Andy Rooney. Credit: Bebeto Matthews / Associated Press
PHOTO: MARTIN SCHOELLER
The young Jane Lynch’s quest to be an actress wasn’t some childish fantasy so much as a deep-seated hunger to soothe the gnawing inside. Growing up outside Chicago, Lynch writes in her memoir, Happy Accidents, she never felt right in her body—or in the world.
So the validation-starved middle child wrote fan letters and called in to radio talk shows seeking advice. Sometimes the emptiness would envelop her—and yet when her parents brought her to church theatrical events, she felt an elation she could hardly contain.
Slowly, the validation came. Now 51, Lynch is on top of the world both professionally and personally. Happily married to Dr. Lara Embry, a clinical psychologist she met in 2009 at a lesbian-rights gala, she is helping to raise Embry’s nine-year-old daughter, as well as three cats and a dog. A critics’ favorite for scene-stealing performances in comic films from the likes of Christopher Guest and Judd Apatow, she just completed a role in the Farrelly brothers’ upcoming Three Stooges—and of course, there’s Fox’s megahit Glee.
Lynch is deaf in her right ear—most likely, she says, as a result of a severe childhood fever—but the six-foot Second City alum is hearing nothing but raves for her role as Glee’s Sue Sylvester, the tracksuit-wearing, hypercompetitive shrew she’s turned into the finest TV character viewers love to hate since J.R. Ewing.
She is up for her second Outstanding Supporting Actress Emmy this month—and will host the ceremony as well, only the third woman in TV Academy history to land that solo role. Fox hopes her presence on the broadcast will attract hordes of Gleeks, the devout young followers who embrace the show’s message of inclusion, theatrical pizzazz and winning cast. Speaking in machine-gun bursts, Lynch says it’s a message she herself longed to hear growing up.
Your Sue Sylvester has to be the meanest character on television. How do you keep her from being a caricature?
There’s a real anger and tenderness at the same time—a real dark shadow. I think artisti-cally my work became a little more “profound,” if you will, once I started to look at the shadow. You dig right into that to get the best stuff. But you gotta have a sense of humor, so Sue is a perfect role for me.
Have you thought about what Sue would be like off camera?
You know, it’s funny, I don’t so much—I kind of dive into the feelings and emotions first. But when they created Sue’s condo, it was like an episode of Hoarders—trophies and accolades all over the place. I learned so much about her in that condo.
If she weren’t running the high school cheer squad, what would she be doing?
Probably be a drill sergeant in the army. But even if she worked at the hardware store, she’d be running it like she runs the cheers—like she’s at war.
Do you think your physical appearance helped you establish yourself as a comic actress?
I wonder. Deep down, I always felt it was a detriment: Oh, I’m taller than all the guys. It was a time when being a sort of a tall, butchy person was...well, you didn’t see that many of me around. I wasn’t even that butchy back then. I was kind of wearing Peter Pan collars, working the preppy thing as best I could.
You did a lot of TV.
I always thought I would be in theater. I thought the repertory life was for me. I ended up falling into the comedy world via Second City when I was cast in the touring company. The smartest thing I did, if I can give myself credit, is to say yes to everything.
But sometimes that can get you in trouble.
Well, you don’t say yes to porn—you draw the line there. But what it means is you show up to do crappy shows sometimes, and you still do your best. The alternative of not doing something was never acceptable to me. But it wasn’t like I was walking into dark studios for a calendar shoot.
As I recall, you played a former porn star in A Mighty Wind.
Yes, I did. It was so much fun. She sure said yes to everything.
In a lot of your work, there’s often been a strong sexual component. Why is that?
I don’t know. I think I’m fascinated with sexual entitlement. [Laughs.] I’m fascinated with entitlement in general, actually. I had very, very little of it—I didn’t think I deserved anything. I thought I was gonna have to fight and scratch for every-thing. I never felt attractive the way Laurie Bohner in A Mighty Wind feels. She walks into a room and thinks every-one wants to pork her. She just assumes it, and she loves it. And that cracks me up. Same thing with the woman [I played] in The 40-Year-Old Virgin: Of course Steve Carell would want to lose his virginity with me. It’s a gift I’m offering him.
That movie introduced you to a whole new audience.
Absolutely. Ensemble comedies were all fresh and new. We shot in that store over several weeks, and we all came in every day, even if we weren’t in any of the scenes that were designated to shoot that day, ’cause Judd [Apatow] might say, “Jane, get in there,” or, “Paul [Rudd], get in there.” It was like sitting on the bench in the basketball game, and you’d get called in.
So, a lot was improvised?
All of it. That’s why I say in the book that my agent didn’t want me to take it. It was a horrible script. It was really just kind of stupid and sophomoric. [Laughs.] The film wasn’t stupid and sophomoric—it was done in an artful way. But yeah, it’s all improvised.
Did the title of that film ring a bell with you? You were a bit of a late bloomer yourself.
Yeah, it did. I wasn’t a 40-year-old virgin, I’ll have you know. But it was about coming toward something late in life. I was watching Steve’s character get to find love at 40, and I was a little jealous. I was wondering when it was gonna happen for me. I got married at 49, actually, so I almost ended up being a 50-year-old virgin.
But not literally, right?
No, let’s put “virgin” as a metaphor. That would be really sad. But I was a relationship virgin, that’s for sure.
Was it worth waiting for?
It sure was, yeah, absolutely. And I’m good at it—who would have thought? I’m really good in a relationship.
What was it like doing Bill Maher’s show when you and he read those text messages between [former Rep.] Anthony Weiner and his girlfriend?
Well, you know what—we’re all horny. We’ve just gotta be careful where we do it. And you know, I love Anthony Weiner. You probably don’t figure that because I engaged in that skit, but I think you’ve got to find the irony in everything. I’m sorry he’s gone. I really do wish he had hung in there, and I miss him. He should still run for mayor of New York.
In the back of your mind, do you hope something goes wrong on the live Emmy broadcast so you can have fun with it?
[Laughs.] No, you don’t want things going wrong, even if that’s where the good stuff comes from. You can’t consciously hope things go wrong.
Last year Stephen Colbert handed you the Supporting Actress Emmy. Did you know him?
Yes, he’s a Second City guy. It was lovely to have him give that to me. It would be great to hand him one this year. He is something else—he has really made a difference. He’s deaf in one ear, too.
Oh, really? So between the two of you—
We have perfect hearing!
ERIC ESTRIN has written for television and film. He edits the review site Movie Smackdown!
September 2, 2011, 3:47 am
Snarling relief pitchers see themselves as baseball’s meanest breed. Asked to take the mound at the most pivotal, pressure-packed moments — in the late innings, with the game on the line — they often develop a steely shell to hide any rattled nerves.
But decades of hard work could be coming undone thanks to the smiling faces of Hannah Montana, Dora the Explorer and Hello Kitty.
In this tradition-bound sport, in which managers wear the same uniforms as the players and Cracker Jack can still be bought at concession stands, a hazing ritual that has gone on for years seems to have reached a new level of absurdity at major league ballparks: rookie relievers are being forced to wear schoolgirl backpacks — gaudy in color, utterly unmanly — to transport gear.
“Everybody laughs at me,” said Bryan Shaw, a 23-year-old rookie reliever for the Arizona Diamondbacks. Before each game, he makes the long, painful walk to the bullpen toting a pink bag adorned with an image of a white unicorn. “They all yell, ‘Cute bag!’ ” he said.
The most junior reliever on each major league team is in charge of carrying the stash of snacks, drinks and pain medications from the clubhouse to the bullpen. For decades, an extra equipment sack or plastic shopping bag sufficed. But leave it to big leaguers to find new ways to torment their tenderfoots.
“It’s just one more way to get at your rookie,” said Mets pitcher Tim Byrdak, 37. “You have to walk all the way across the field to get to the bullpen, so you make the rookie carry this pink bag, and you can kind of humiliate him.”
Before a recent home game, Pedro Beato, 24, the Mets’ youngest reliever, was diligently stuffing a fuchsia Dora the Explorer backpack with chips, cookies and candy bars. When Jason Isringhausen, one of the team’s veterans, had gone shopping online to find a suitable bag for Beato, he knew exactly what he was looking for. “Something pink,” Isringhausen said.
The flamboyance of a floral pattern running down either side of the bag forms a striking juxtaposition with its wearer. “The first day I showed up, and it was just in my locker, I knew what I had to do,” said Beato, a 6-foot-4 right-hander with a vicious fastball. “It’s my duty.”
That duty, and that color scheme, extend across the league.
For much of this season, Michael Stutes of the Philadelphia Phillies was forced to wear a Hello Kitty backpack and a pink feather boa purchased by Brad Lidge, a 10-year veteran, during a road trip to San Francisco. “I thought it wasn’t right for Stutes to be carrying a plain black bag,” Lidge said. “I was in Macy’s shopping for my kids. I just knew we wanted something pink.”
Jonny Venters of the Atlanta Braves, meanwhile, toted an assortment of bags last season that recalled the TiVo recordings of an 8-year-old. First there was Hannah Montana. Then iCarly. By September, the team’s veterans added SpongeBob SquarePants and Cinderella.
“I heard stuff from fans on the road, you know, ‘Nice backpack, man!’ ” Venters said, laughing. “But, whatever. It’s a fun time.”
No one quite knows when the playful practice began. Trevor Hoffman, baseball’s career leader in saves, said that this type of rookie hazing did not occur when he reached the majors in 1993 and that he never noticed the bags in the proceeding decade.
“But now it seems like we’re seeing a ton of them everywhere,” Hoffman said. “I think it’s amusing for the fans to see. It’s kind of a way of pointing out who’s the low man on the totem pole.”
Major League Baseball for now has no issue with the bags, as long as they maintain a spirit of innocence, a league spokesman said.
Baseball’s famously nitpicky attention to dress was exposed last year when it briefly barred Joe Maddon, the manager of the Tampa Bay Rays, from wearing a team-branded hooded sweatshirt over his uniform top in the dugout.
For a sport that has seemed to resist any diversion from the sacraments of its rich history, then, this colorful rite is an unlikely trend.
Hoffman, who retired before the start of this season, said the bags were harmless. But other shenanigans, he said, could overstep the boundaries of baseball’s accepted manners. In 2007, for example, Hoffman and the other San Diego Padres relievers bought a motorized cooler for the rookie to ride to the bullpen. But it was stopped after one outing.
San Diego reliever Erik Hamren shouldering a backpack featuring R2-D2 of “Star Wars.”
The Padres' Anthony Bass, left, and Josh Spence evoked “Star Wars.”
“We just thought it was too over the top,” Hoffman said. “We didn’t need to bring that much attention to ourselves.”
When Hoffman left the Padres before the 2009 season, the bullpen was left under the stewardship of Heath Bell. A long and fraught process to find the perfect bag soon followed.
“We did, like, a school bus driver, a crossing guard, a fisherman, a construction worker, and it just wasn’t good,” Bell said of the search in his first year as the team’s closer. “And then I came across Yoda.”
Bell encountered the backpack with the “Star Wars” theme while taking his children to Legoland in Carlsbad, Calif., and felt it was perfect for the team. The ensuing winning streak sealed the matter. Two other bags, one featuring R2-D2 and one a stormtrooper, have since made their debut with the Padres, and Bell said he had Chewbacca and C-3PO at home in reserve.
These days, before every game, Yoda is slung over the shoulders of Erik Hamren.
“It’s part of the gig,” Hamren, 25, said. “I’ve grown to love it.”
The nature of the game, meanwhile, means that this fluorescent pink wave will most likely endure for years.
“Guys are starting to move up that had it first done to them, so it seems like it’s starting to get passed on,” Hoffman said. “Guys that are carrying them now are going to want to make sure they get the chance to make someone else do it.”
Last month, for instance, Stutes was able to rid himself of the Hello Kitty and boa ensemble when the Phillies called up Michael Schwimer, 25, a 6-foot-8 right-hander.
“He was very happy to hand it over to me,” Schwimer said. “I’ll just wear it with pride.”
In his revelatory memoir, ‘‘Drama’’ (HarperCollins, $27), John Lithgow, the consummate character actor, talks about infidelity, Oedipal striving and the awfulness of acceptance speeches.
There are many admissions in the book, most notably that in the 1970s you had eight affairs with different theater co-stars (including the “incandescent” Bergman muse Liv Ullmann) while married to your first wife. You likened yourself then to a “rampaging elephant.” How hard was it for you to reveal the affairs?
Of course they were difficult to write about, and I was very ambivalent about whether to press ahead. But I made a decision: Either I’m going to write an honest book or a dishonest book. And I thought it was sort of dishonest to leave those moments out. I have good friends who read the book and said, “My God, 90 percent of this I didn’t know about.”
You also admit to evading the Vietnam draft board while in England in the late 1960s. You soiled yourself and haunted some of the scuzziest streets of London, cultivating a persona of a strung-out maniac. The jig worked — you were classed as 4-F — but the performance left you feeling raw.
It was a crazy time and I felt like I was behaving in a crazy way. I was panicky and I presented myself as panicky. I always felt like I wasn’t really lying. I included it in the book just because it was a different version of acting. It didn’t make me feel comfortable about myself at all. It was very, very close to the bone. I knew I was going to be face to face with my audience. There was no cheating.
You mention that winning a Tony was one of the proudest moments of your life but then go on to say, “acceptance speeches are generally a graceless cavalcade of pomposity, crocodile tears and egregious false modesty.” Did you have anyone in mind?
Of course. But I’m not going to tell you! Mainly myself. Early on, I was very ponderous about accepting awards and I became more lighthearted about it the more awards that I won. But they’re very emotional moments, no question about it. Actors, it’s our reflex — we make a big scene out of everything. Particularly theater actors. The Tony awards always strike me as akin to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Everybody’s full of helium.
Your father, Arthur Lithgow, was a great theater impresario, particularly noted for his Shakespeare festivals in the 1950s. He supported your career in various ways, giving you your first parts. But in the book he seems at times critically distant, not commenting — good or bad — on your performances. What did he think of you as an actor?
He was once interviewed about me for an A&E “Biography,” and he talked about my acting in ways that he had never spoken to me. It’s very typical. We’ll say things to millions of people that we would never say to the people very closest to us. But he talked about the opening of “M. Butterfly,” when I was alone on the stage looking out at the audience and just grabbing their attention in what he described as a very uncanny way. I thought, My God, my father never said any of that to me. Isn’t that life?
The Vitameatavegamin Girl would have turned 100 on Aug. 6.
August 1, 2011
Everywhere I went last week, women were talking about Bridesmaids. When they would see it, how many and varied were the ways in which they adored Maya Rudolph, how Kristen Wiig really was amazing in those two minutes of Knocked Up she appeared in, etc. Perhaps that only says something about the circles I travel in, although now we know that people spent about $25 million this weekend to see it. But much as talk of weddings, and all the things one Must Do and Must Have at one, often makes me feel as thought I was born in a pod sent here from the planet I Don't Know How To Be A Lady, so too did all the hoopla about this movie. I know there's a burgeoning cultural sub-discussion about the place of women in comedy and in Hollywood—I’ve run up against it before. But it was unclear to me how, exactly, we all had such faith in a movie whose poster contained the words "Produced by Judd Apatow" (shudder) and which used the phrase "Chick Flicks Don't Have to Suck" as a cornerstone of its marketing.
I hoped, of course, that this was only me being my usual contrarian self, and that my feelings of alienation from the sisterhood would disappear upon seeing the film itself. But they didn't.
Bridesmaids is, as undoubtedly many of you know for yourselves by now, not the worst way you could have spent two hours of your weekend. It's quite funny, in fact, and not always in the manner the trailer might have led you to expect. Specifically, for all those who feared it would be full of jokes of the "food-poisoning-induced diarrhea" variety, that's not the case. There's plenty of Wiigian deadpan on offer, with that uniquely skittish flatness she delivers so beautifully. Her impersonation of a penis in search of fellatio is amazing, and I particularly enjoyed some drunken escapades on a plane that, despite being cast at a fairly broad level of comedy, Wiig manages to make subtle with her habit of underplaying the joke. Almost in a Peter Sarsgaard-esque way, if I may be granted a potentially bizarre analogy. Maya Rudolph, as the bride Lillian, looks fantastic basically the entire movie, even if she hasn't much to do. There's a bonus Jon Hamm appearance during which he questionably tries to channel his charming surfer-dude personal demeanor through the Draperian asshole type. But who cares about the success of that, Jon Hamm is hot.
But that's about all the good things I can say about it. And as I checked over my notes afterwards, I noticed that none of the things I enjoyed about the movie were really related to the movie's appeals to "women." Which is funny, of course, because in the last week there was a lot of meta-critical chatter that posited this movie as a kind of referendum on the modern Chick Flick Condition. I first became suspicious when men's reviews of this film were filled with nice guy-isms that smacked of the modern fear, particular though not exclusive to male liberal arts graduates, of being seen as sexist. Roger Ebert: "It definitively proves that women are the equal of men in vulgarity, sexual frankness, lust, vulnerability, overdrinking and insecurity." (Well, I guess we don’t need the ERA anymore!) From no less a women's magazine wannabe than the Wall Street Journal: "If this is only a chick flick, then call me a chick." (We’re always looking for fresh blood!)
It wasn't only men who praised the movie to the heavens. At Salon, Rebecca Traister went so far as to term attendance a "social responsibility," while Mary Elizabeth Williams called the film "your first black president of female driven comedies." (Eek.) In other words, the sisterhood is calling, and your solidarity is required by way of your wallet. Imagine my surprise when I arrived on these hyperbolic recommendations—from writers I respect!—to discover a movie whose "female"-ness is derived almost exclusively from the sheer number of speaking roles assigned to women. Who talk almost exclusively to each other, bless them.
That said, even when applying the new gold standard of the Lady Film, the Bechdel test—it's now been endorsed by the New Yorker, after all—the results are mixed. I'm not sure if we can really count conversations about weddings in this movie as not being "about men"—although it's true that the province of the wedding is presented to us as women's territory. But movies like Bridesmaids presume that much of the angst that women who are not the bride feel on these occasions has to do with not being married (or at least in a stable relationship) themselves. In the logic of this kind of film, no one has any problem with the idea that an expensive dress, lasers and Wilson Phillips, are the appropriate accessories to a celebration of the person with whom one plans to spend a life. Instead, the fear and anxiety in Bridesmaids springs almost solely from losing a member of your personal sisterhood to the land of men. I don't mean to suggest that that isn't a real fear, sometimes, nor even that it shouldn't play a role in movies like this. It's that you miss things, crucial things—funny things!—when you make it your exclusive lens.
Take, for example, the whole matter of dresses—bride’s and bridesmaids’—a topic much debated and joked about among women of this film’s ostensible target demographic. These dresses are frequently ugly; they are expensive; and boy, would most women I know like to crucify the person who came up with the idea that the only way to look good in wedding pictures is for the bridesmaids’ dresses to match. Placed in that context, the scene in which the dresses are being chosen is an egregious missed opportunity. The movie doesn’t even go for the weakest of jabs at that whole ridiculous tradition. We're expected to laugh instead at the spectacle of Maya Rudolph shitting in the street, a scene that was apparently the brainchild of Apatow himself.
The problem with that intervention isn’t just that it was made by a guy who, prior to this film, seemed afraid to admit that women might shit at all. (Such are the scraps you learn to accept from the big boys’ table, I suppose.) It’s that it also keeps the central relationship, and the tension the story seeks to introduce into it, from making much sense. After the plane escapade, when Wiig's Annie gets the group grounded on their way to Vegas for a bachelorette weekend, Lillian tells her that she’s relieving her of wedding duties because it's not her thing. In context this makes no sense. Annie has only, in terms of errors, picked a bad restaurant and accepted two alleged anxiety-reducing pills from Rose, her rival. I can see where the writing might have gone with this—it's true, for example, that if someone asked me to be her Maid of Honor there would be moments when I would fear that my eyes would never quit rolling. I might balk at the idea of having to plan both a shower and a bachelorette party, for example. But Annie is never presented to us as That Sort of Girl. She has no objection to the proceedings that could be even vaguely categorized as feminist. Instead, hazily, it's suggested that her problem with Lillian’s wedding is simply that everyone else's life seems to be moving forward just as hers descends into disaster: she has no job and has had to move back in with her mother. And, mainly, she has no man. Jon Hamm is commitment phobic and bad in bed to boot, and Annie herself can't commit to the cute (if bland) police officer she charms out of giving her a ticket. And so we’re back to the same old thing: any ambivalence Annie feels towards the wedding is just a cipher for her fear that she will never, herself, have a guy to call her own. (It's worth noting that this romance is the only thread of Annie's disheveled life that the film resolves.)
Do I blame Wiig, and her co-writer Annie Mumolo, for all of this? Not precisely. They were making a Hollywood comedy, they were doing so at the behest of, and supervised by, Judd Apatow, and expecting “subtlety” and “depth” to emerge from such a process might be too much to ask for. It's telling, after all, that women's "votes" for this film were characterized as dollars, which in this bafflingly Gilded Age of the market economy apparently is the new measure of quality. Of course, I do understand that films need to make money, and I also understand that there are agreed-upon (if arbitrary) methods for doing so that are largely beyond creative control. I further understand that this is a team effort, and that the team undoubtedly includes studio suits who, in Tina Fey's soon-to-be immortal formulation, believe that "the definition of 'crazy' in show business is a woman who keeps talking even after no one wants to fuck her anymore." I blame the frame more than I blame any of the individual people holding it up. But then if the problem is really the Apatowian-industrial-complex, and its control over architecture of this whole film, well: maybe it’s time to come to terms with the fact that this kind of movie can’t be quasi-feminist, or perhaps more aptly, even a victory for women qua “women.”
And it’s not just a matter of the film making it All About the Men. Take the strange case of Melissa McCarthy's character, Megan. Chatter on my various social media feeds suggests that in some people's view she stole the movie. Manohla Dargis bizarrely called her character almost "radical." But I was mostly appalled by how she'd been written, myself. Almost every joke was designed to rest on her presumed hideousness, and her ribald but unmistakably "butch" sexuality was grounded primarily in her body type and an aversion to makeup. ("I never bloat," she says at a bridesmaids' lunch, which is funny because she is big, Y/Y?) But if her failure to apologize for her size seems momentarily refreshing, one’s satisfaction is instantly deflated by the fact that all the other characters in the movie find her so distasteful. The dominant feeling she seems to elicit from her fellow bridesmaids is one of horror. Even when Megan has a heartfelt talk with Annie towards the end of the film, Wiig seemed to struggle to shed a nose wrinkle.
It's not so much that the character was unrecognizable—I've known women like Megan. It's that none of the humanity we see in her came from the script—it was all in McCarthy's performance. Which is lovely as it provides a good showcase for McCarthy's talent, but I wonder what she, in her heart of hearts, feels about being consigned to roles like this because of her body type. Sure, comedies often feature a buffoon character along these lines. In some sense she was playing the Jonah Hill/Zach Galifianakis role. What I object to is less that these roles exist than that they are assigned from the get-go to the kinds of women (fat, butch, maybe African-American if “sass” is required) that society feels extremely comfortable laughing at. Which is to say: why can't the buffoon be skinny? Even pretty in a conventional way? Even more to the point, why must her looks be made the essence of her buffoonery?
The answer might have to do with studio/Apatowian tweaking, with their article of faith being that fat women are unattractive and unattractive women will not put butts in seats unless they are ridiculed. But running along here is a sort of ickier undercurrent of the whole concept of "sisterhood"—namely that it's so often built on the backs of women of the "wrong sort"—in this case “too fat/unattractive.” The content of that wrongness varies from context to context, of course. But the "rising tide" theory of social advancement is only great until you're the one being used as a stepping stone. And I'm not going to get into all the pages and pages of theory that feminist writers have wasted on this because no one cares, certainly not readers of some movie review, in any case. Nevertheless, here's my qualm: I'm never going to feel comfortable with the term "feminist" or frankly even "female-driven" being applied to a comedy, albeit written by women, albeit starring excellent, funny women performers, albeit designed to appeal to the gross-out comedy crowd, that makes fun of fat women for being so plainly gross and disgusting.
Yes yes yes, I heard you, Judd Apatow, Paul Feig, every dissenting male commenter on an article about women and comedy, ever: nothing should be sacred in comedy. The problem is exactly that, though. Your view of what is and isn't sacred is remarkably rigid. (Also, boring.) Pretty, thin ladies being amazing? Sacred. Fat women being ugly? Sacred. Women who you don't want to sleep with being anything other than objects of ridicule? Well, that’s going too far! You are all, the lot of you, positively catholic about such things. I'm sure you believe yourselves to be nice guys, "letting" the women have a movie like this one—but I, for one, don't thank you for it.
Michelle Dean's writing has appeared, among other places, at Bitch, The American Prospect and The Rumpus. She sometimes blogs here.
As I sit here sweating, and not just because I went for a short run 30 minutes ago, I ponder my enormous denial:
Which boils down to the fact that smarts are all the more important as you get older, and I am getting older (notice I did not say old), and I’m glad that I still have some—even if they don’t help me lose weight, keep up, stay hot, or get published. Because they help me put everything in perspective—by being aware of my shortcomings, acknowledging them and moving on.
Oh, fuck it. I’m having cake.