Thursday, January 05, 2017

Jane Wyman's 100th Birthday, Rain, Clouds, And Fences

Jane Wyman was an Oscar winning actress and she married a B movie actor in 1940 named Ronald Reagan until they split in 1949.   Here's the New York Times obituary.  She'd be 100 today.  Here is the first birthday from my list of people born in 1917.

It's been mostly cloudy, with breaks of sun and breaks of rain.  Southern California can use every drop of rain it can get, so I'm not complaining. When we came home after seeing Fences Thursday evening, it was raining, which I tried to catch, not too successfully, in the lights at this soccer field.  But the fence is a good lead into talking about the film.

Fences was powerful.  The language was magnificent, but then it was written by August Wilson, a playwright who has written some of the best American plays of the 20th Century.  I couldn't help thinking about Death of a Salesman - another play about a father who was doing all he could to cope in his role as the family provider.  But while we can see that Willie Loman is a victim of the social expectations of his times, he's essentially a weak man who could have made different choices in his life.

But in Fences the father, Troy, - played by Denzel Washington in the film - was a much stronger and competent man, restricted by much harsher limits.  But flawed as well.  His anger at the injustices he experienced and perhaps some he just perceived prevents him from enjoying the comparatively decent life he has built.   He was a great baseball player, he hit home runs against Satchel Paige he claims, but it was before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball.  Now he's fighting the system to break out of the restrictions of the Pittsburgh sanitation department.  He's tired of throwing the garbage into the truck.  He wants a promotion to the job reserved for white men - driver.

As the play progresses, we learn why he's such a hard ass father, and why he can't tell his son, Corey (Courtney B. Vance  in the 1987 version and Chris Chalk in the 2010 version)  he likes him, let alone loves him.   Here's that scene I found online from the play - first the 1987 version with James Earl Jones as Troy and then in the 2010 version with Denzel Washington in the role he plays in the movie.  (Washington also directs the film.)

Troy's father had abandoned him and we can see throughout the play* how stretched he is trying to provide for his family - which includes his mentally unhinged brother, a son from an earlier wife, and a son from his present wife of 18 years or so, played by Viola Davis. And you can see the pressure he feels to raise his son to be responsible and tough in a world that shortchanges black men.

And Davis is fantastic. Here's a later scene, after Washington had told Davis he's going to be a father again, and how he just needed a place where he could let go of all those pressures, where he didn't have responsibilities to pay the rent and feed the family, where he could escape and laugh and be himself. She doesn't take kindly to that at all.

No one should be saying that while men have it easy in today's world. Few people have it easy.  The system isn't kind to human beings.  But all things considered, there have been fewer barriers to success for white men than for black men. (I'm avoiding women because that's a whole other issue.) 

But I wonder how many white men who hate the slogan 'black lives matter' can watch this film and get its humanity. The issues are universal, but will the racist wing of the Trump team  be able to see past the skin color and the language? One would hope so, but how many will ever see it? And if they do, and if they felt Troy's pain, could they tell their friends?  I don't know, I'm just asking.

* I say play deliberately as I'm vaguely aware of some critics finding the movie not cinematic enough.  As I was looking for cast names I saw a link to a New Yorker article on that topic, but haven't looked because I wanted to finish this first.  I'll look now.

Before I found it, I found an article by Kareem Abdul Jabbar and I can't think of a smarter or more suited man to talk about this film.  The link also includes a video interview he had with the two lead characters of the film.  Jabbar writes as part of the intro:
"The Maxson family's unhappiness results from a toxic mixture of the patriarch's unapologetic hubris and the pressures of being raised black in a white society that marginalizes, degrades and oppresses anyone not in the mainstream. Troy Maxson (Washington) isn't aware that while he battles for equality from the white society, he's imposing the same tyrannical restrictions he's struggling against on his own family. He has become the very enemy he's fighting."
Most of it is the transcript of the video and the video itself.  They are exactly the same.  There are a few things in the written interview that aren't in the video and vice versa.  Also, in the video Davis correctly says 'baseball league,' not the 'football league' that's written.

Thursday was a break from the rain.  When I did a quick bike ride down to the beach just to move my legs a bit, the clouds were out over the ocean, but it wasn't the solid gray we'd had.

We had dinner with a friend of my mom's, a woman who came by weekly and always brought some food for my mom.  They'd been good friends for a long time.  She told us stories about after WWII when she met her husband in London.  They were both young refugees in England during the war.  They'd both gotten out of Germany before the war started.  His sister had lived through the war in Berlin with fake papers.  They had both applied for jobs as translators for the American military in Europe.  Her father took her down to the station and started talking to a young man while she was away a moment.  So, it turned out he introduced her to her future husband.  She was 20 and they first were sent to Paris for a week of training and then to Germany where their fluency in German and English were helpful.  Despite the hardships of those immediate postwar days in Germany, love and adventure are what she remembered most.

For those of you who are wondering about the New Yorker article, I did find it after I finished this.  I think the reviewer got so hung up on the idea that this should have been done more cinematically that he missed the fundamental power of the story.  He's focused on technique, even when he has praise, which he has.


  1. In the new version of the play, people are laughing and cheering. That strikes me as very odd; maybe we are so caught up in our own 'identity culture' that we aren't willing to listen to the truth and depth in this play.



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