Our Dorothy Parker: Joan Rivers in “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work.”

As you might expect of a good documentary, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work connects you with its subject on a human level, exposes her vulnerabilities, gives you insight into what drives her. But it also does something that may be even more important than that. It makes you laugh your ass off.

A realization begins to take hold as we follow Rivers through a year of her life, and see archival material of television appearances going back to her beginnings: Joan Rivers is one of the great wits of our time. Dorothy Parker wrote poems, stories and criticism for Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, and delivered bon mots to Robert Benchley and Alexander Woollcott at the Algonquin Round Table, while Joan Rivers works on nightclub stages and television talk shows; Dorothy Parker was constrained (in her work at least) to be more lady-like while Joan Rivers lives in a time that requires her to be more frankly ribald; but they have more in common than separates them. In the film there’s a clip from a television appearance with Johnny Carson in which Joan, by way of unacknowledged homage, updates Parker’s famous “men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses” in a way that’s every bit as true, as epigrammatic, and as concentratedly witty. I won’t spoil the line for you (one of this film’s great pleasures is rediscovering Rivers’ ability to craft observations that have the power to level you in an economical eleven or twelve words), but suffice it to say that Carson is so surprised by it that he has to jerk back and turn away from Rivers and the audience so as not to lose control of himself.

Barnard-educated, this smart Jewish girl (Parker, incidentally, was half-Jewish, and more covertly) has been delighting our minds for almost fifty years now. Some of the laughs in Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work come from lines that Joan delivers in the public appearances the film documents, but many are from remarks she tosses off as we follow her through her days. (She’s always working, even when she’s not. One of the inspiring messages of the film is that “always working” is as good a prescription for happiness as any of us is likely to find.) Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work has the potential to cause a general re-appreciation of Joan Rivers, an awareness that she is not just a comic but a wit who is the rightful heir to Parker in her mining of the territory of loneliness, possessed of a comparable talent and deserving of the same respect from the culture. I suspect that Rivers knows this and that it’s one reason she agreed to let the filmmakers in her life. The bottom line is that as emotionally connected to Joan Rivers as this documentary made me feel (and it did), I laughed out loud during it more than at any comedy I’ve seen at the movies in the last five years. I was not alone.


I Have My First Waffle of the 21st Century.

This may be hard for you to believe, but…I just ate my first waffle this century. Also my first waffle of the millennium, even though Y2K seems a millennium ago itself.

I love waffles. But I don’t dare eat them. Pancakes, yes–but waffles are more decadent, with all those square pockets purpose-built to soak up butter and syrup. Today, however, I was at the Cornerstone Cafe in Chicago, a simple diner at the three-way of Elston, Western and Diversey that we frequent. At the Cornerstone Cafe, everything is good. (Including the people.) So when the pecan waffle called out to me–and who knows why it picked today of all days to do so?–I was powerless to resist.

As I tucked into my waffle, all studded with pecans inside and out, I realized, with complete certainty, that the last time I had a waffle was sometime in the 1990s. I can picture that one, too, and I can picture exactly where it happened. It wasn’t a pecan waffle, and it wasn’t at the Cornerstone (which didn’t exist back then), but it was good.

Today’s was better, though. If you’re only going to have one waffle this century, the Cornerstone is a fine place to have it.


Carole King, James Taylor, and The Great American Songbook.

We saw Carole King and James Taylor in concert last night, at the Allstate Arena outside Chicago. One thing that occurred to me during the great evening is how each one, in his/her body of work, synthesized the entirety of twentieth century music — including jazz and the Great American Songbook of theater, film and popular music advanced by Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Richard Rodgers and others, along with what came before, and what came later. (Joni Mitchell, while great, is too idiosyncratic, and too much in the worlds of folk and jazz as a songwriter to the exclusion of other forms, to quite fit the picture.) The harmonic language of the Great American Songbook is in their music, and since nearly everything else American is in it, too, that means just about everything. The GAS element is simplified a tad, and used as a color, rather than the color, because of their distilling it through the filters of gospel, sixties pop, R&B, folk, rock, and blues, but it’s there. Listening to their songs again (the two artists alternated in the spotlight through the evening, providing backup for the other when not in it), I was awestruck by the enormity of their accomplishment.

Put it this way: If you decided that it was important that somebody take on the impossible task of summarizing the entire history of twentieth century popular music and blending it into a coherent personal style, you’d find that two songwriters, improbably, had actually done it. Each artist is appreciated by his/her millions of fans, but I’m not sure that each one’s achievement, when viewed from the perspective of the twenty-first century looking back on the twentieth, has ever been given full measure. It began to dawn on me last night.



Lena Horne Crosses the River.

Watch and listen to this rendition of Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer’s “Moon River,” from a Bell Telephone Hour broadcast of 1965. It’s similar to, but somewhat slower than, the version Lena recorded around the same time for United Artists Records.

When I hear this performance, I hear something I’ve never picked up in any other singer’s version — something hiding in plain sight in the song all along, because it’s in the very first line. “Wider than a mile, I’m crossing you in style some day.” When Lena sings these words so introspectively and yearningly, yet proudly, I hear her memory of a young black woman looking across an expanse separating her from a white world of freedom, equality and privilege, and wanting to be a part of it, determined to be a part of it, someday.

All the thousands of times I’ve heard the Mercer lyric before, I’ve thought of the river only in terms of flow, of movement with the current, along the river’s lengthwise dimension. (For that is where most of the song lives: “two drifters off to see the world.”) But that very first line, the one that’s always been there but which it took Lena’s version to make me hear, describes an action perpendicular to flow — crossing the river. And doing it by an act of will. Not transcending the divide as if it weren’t there, but consciously crossing it, getting to the other side of it, where the good things in life are; and doing it with dignity intact despite the formidable problem that it is “wider than a mile.” (Doing it “in style.”) No other singer brings that out, even though by Mercer’s putting it right up front you’d have thought he made it impossible to miss.

I don’t know if the divide Mercer had somewhere in the back of his mind, when he imagined meanings the song might have, was a racial one. But I do know now, as I never did before hearing Lena’s TV version, that Mercer is yearning for something he doesn’t have on that opposite river bank. If Lena used her own history to find a meaning in that divide, then she did what all singers should do — bringing her full humanity to the song, and by so doing, illuminating it.


Game Theory.

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In a city divided pro and con on whether we wanted the 2016 Olympics (disruption and financial ruin were two of the objections), I was, on balance, pro. And I believed that if Chicago won the games, many who had been on the con side would catch Olympic fever in short order. There were probably Chicagoans who objected to our World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 for some of the same reasons, but most of them came around.

So when Chicago got cut from the get-go in yesterday’s International Olympic Committee vote, I felt bitter. I felt, “Jeez, okay, you can’t win them all, but getting eliminated in the first round?!??” In a city that has learned to associate sports with disappointment, this felt not just like not-winning but like a real kick in the teeth. But a friend gave me a “game theory” explanation of the process that helped raise my civic self-esteem a bit.

It’s not that the members of the IOC regarded Chicago as the most laughable choice. In fact, very much the opposite. They regarded Chicago as the most serious threat to a Rio victory. If you were an IOC voting member who preferred Rio over Chicago, therefore, it was incumbent on you to cast your vote in the first round for any city but Chicago. If it were to come down to two cities left in contention, Chicago versus Rio, you, the voting IOC member, might not know how your fellow voters would go. So, even if out of the four cities in the first round Chicago was a close second choice for you, but Rio was your first choice, you needed to cast your vote for one of the weaker cities (Madrid or Tokyo) to keep them in the race. You would know that Rio would certainly beat either of those in the later rounds, but a Chicago that was still in the hunt in the later rounds might end up beating Rio. Essentially, the voting members of the IOC behaved like (sneaky, but rational) contestants on The Weakest Link or Survivor, or like Republicans who cross party lines to vote in Democratic primaries in order to boost a Democrat they think their candidate can beat. They voted not to remove the true weakest link, but to remove (in their view) the strongest competitor.reaction to losing 2016 olympics

So it wasn’t quite the diss that it felt like. In fact, it was evidence of a grudging respect. That’s what I’m telling myself this morning. And yes, I think I actually believe it.


The Upcoming Frank Sinatra BioPic.

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A new, major film biography of Frank Sinatra is on the way, to be directed by Martin Scorsese. Accounts vary.

The Hollywood Reporter says this:

The deal comes after years of negotiations with Frank Sinatra Enterprises, a joint venture of the crooner’s estate and Warner Music Group. Internal politics of the estate, where family members had to form a consensus as to how to tell the story and, more importantly, just how much of the story to tell — was a hurdle that had to be overcome.

While Variety says this:

The process of acquiring the late entertainer’s life and particularly music rights was “very complicated, as you can imagine,” Schulman said, because of the multiple parties involved. “The responsibility we are taking on to tell his story — that would cause anyone to be very careful about who they grant these rights to,” she added. “Everyone knows that Marty Scorsese is a final-cut director. So there had to be a lot of trust that he would tell this story in a way that didn’t destroy (Sinatra’s) memory.”

These quotes give two different impressions of how hamstrung Scorsese is going to be. The first quote indicates the family is having a lot of input into the storytelling. The second quote indicates the family is trusting Scorsese to tell the story his way. We shall see.

Family input may be no bad thing. The Sinatra children, Nancy, Frank Jr. and Tina, and their mother Nancy, as well Frank’s last wife Barbara, have insight into the real man that no one else would have. So if their input takes the form of “you really must include this, ” instead of “you can’t show this,” it will make for a greater film. But that quote from The Hollywood Reporter about the family forming consensus on “just how much of the story to tell” doesn’t give one optimism that their input will be more about inclusion than exclusion.

Then again, as a Sinatra idolator, I think a movie that glorifies him may be just what I want to see. I’m really not sure how interested I will be in a “warts and all” portrayal.

A tricky proposition.

A danger in terms of reviewers’ perception of the movie is that all this advance publicity about the family’s involvement will cause reviewers to receive the movie as a whitewash, no matter what the film’s actual qualities.

I have high hopes for the movie, but cautious ones. Scorsese’s Howard Hughes biopic was a huge lumbering thing that never got off the ground. The young Scorsese could have done an amazing job with Sinatra’s story, but I’m not sure about the old Scorsese. Maybe this is the film that will return him to form. If any subject could, it’s this one, which is right in the wheelhouse of the director who made Mean Streets, Raging Bull and New York, New York as a young man.

I don’t know who should play Sinatra, but I’m not crazy about the strong suggestion in the Variety article that it will be Leonardo DiCaprio. I know the singing in the movie will be Frank’s, but DiCaprio’s speaking voice seems too light to match up with Frank’s when the singing starts.

All caveats to one side, though, this seems like a movie that must be made now. Scorsese (an ideal choice in many ways) won’t be alive forever, the Sinatra family (whose input I hope will improve the film) won’t be alive forever, and we won’t be alive forever.

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(Photos courtesy of an invaluable resource — the LIFE photo archive hosted by Google.)


Survivor: Season 37.

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In this scary day and age when one walks into long-popular restaurants to find them 20% full, setting off sirens of doom in the head (and when one hears about businesses of all types which have weathered everything, including the Great Depression, now giving up the ghost), we should make note of places that are still, despite the odds, packing them in instead of packing it in. Last night after a movie at the local indieplex (Sunshine Cleaning — good flick, and one of the rare films these days not starring Kate Winslet), we crossed the street to a restaurant in Chicago called La Creperie. French, good wine and cheese, pates, escargot, and, of course, crepes. We went to this place frequently in the seventies, and have again become semi-regulars after a taking a two-and-a-half decade hiatus. It is absolutely unchanged since its opening in 1972. When we arrived, around 8:30, both the front and back rooms were filled to capacity, except for one table that happened to be a two-top, so luckily we could be seated right away. The restaurant remained full of happy wine-drinking, snail-eating patrons the whole time we were there, and when we left between 9:30 and 10, it was busier than before — now it was standing room only, with a crowd at the bar and small vestibule waiting for tables.

The snails were wonderful, fresh-tasting, bathing in garlicky goodness. The crepes were good as always. The wine was lovely. The continued success of La Creperie may have a lot to do with the fact that a twosome can dine in reasonable sophistication, have a cup of bisque, some snails or a salad after that, entrees, and a couple of glasses of good wine — and still get out of there for under a C-note, tax and 20% tip included.

Another reason might be it’s still owned and run by the couple who opened it in 72, when crepes were all the thing. (Can anyone say “Magic Pan”?) She’s from Joliet, he’s from France. Their story can be found by scrolling down a little here.