Sunday, April 24, 2022

TV: First Ladies and Martha Mitchell

Life can be very hard.  Capturing it on film or video?  Even harder.  



The last few days have made that very clear.

Today, STARZ will be broadcasting their highest profile original series to date.  The network has had many other shows  and they've been run-of-the-mill with the exception of Gregg Araki's NOW APOCALYPSE -- a show that was the most visually arresting of anything they or anyone else offered in 2019 or since.  No one would accuse GASLIT of being visually arresting.

Or, honestly, accuse it of being interesting.

"I always knew he'd end up with a 'mo."

An old joke about John Dean in DC circles.  John Dean, a convicted felon, was always a joke in DC and always an outsider.  He was never, however, gaslit.  No, he brought G. Gordon Liddy into what would become Watergate and he agreed to take part in what became Watergate.  It's why he got convicted and it's why we always marvel over how outlets like BUZZFLASH and MSNBC can treat (and have treated) John Dean like an oracle we need to listen to.  They do know he was disbarred, right?  Over Watergate, right?

We know, from watching GASLIT, that Dean had some sort of one night stand before meeting with John Marshall (crooked Richard Nixon's Attorney General), that he thought he was going to be fired at the meeting and that GASLIT director Matt Ross is a pig who has to put a woman's nude breasts on the screen to make a boring an unneeded scene 'interesting.'  It's cute the way Dan Stevens has his ass covered and his crotch covered -- via boxers -- but the camera wants to exploit the body of a woman.  Back to what we learn about Dean, that he  was insulting to Maureen ("Mo") Kane on their first date.  So much so that most would never have gone out with him again.  But we know that he illegally accessed FAA records to find out her flight schedule, to show up and pretend they were both flying out, that she was onto him but agreed to take a future phone conversation with him, that she went with him to a party thrown by John and Martha Mitchell because she found Martha interesting, that she gushed to Martha that she was a fan, that she was present when Dean tried to impress her by showing how close he was to  Nixon administration officials H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrilichman and when they made clear that they had no idea who he was, that she found him sulking and smoking outside, that he insisted they leave the party, that he then had a lengthy talk -- and shared a smoke -- with Martha Mitchell's 11-year-old daughter, that they left (Dean and Mo) and later kissed . . .

This is all in the first hour long episode.

Does any of that reflect Martha Mitchell's story?  Nope. Nor do the scenes of Dean with Liddy or Liddy with others.


That would be what was done to Martha Mitchell.  Martha was a lively figure before Watergate (the illegal break into DNC offices in the Watergate building carried out by Richard Nixon's operatives).  She was so lively that she had appeared on LAUGH-IN in one episode, 60 MINUTES and had been on national talk shows such as THE MIKE DOUGLAS SHOW and THE MERV GRIFFIN SHOW.  After Watergate, she would appear on THE MIKE DOUGLAS SHOW an additional eight episodes.  We're talking about her media presence before Watergate.  She was considered a DC socialite and largely served the same purpose during Tricky Dick's administration that Barbara Hower did in LBJ's administration.  Meaning?  She said outrageous things -- or outrageous for DC -- and became a favorite of the press.  

Wait, you asked Barbara who?


Here's Barbara, from her book LAUGHING ALL THE WAY, writing about her time in the circle of then-President LBJ and First Lady Claudia Alta (aka Lady Bird):

There simply was no shutting me up.  I had to tell every newspaper and magazine that Mrs. Johnson, a lady who spent every waking minute planting trees in ghettos and sprinkling tulip bulbs around settlement homes that had no plumbing, was "off base" with her Beautification Program, that it was "like buying a wig when your teeth are rotting."  I had to say in print that Mrs. Johnson's rich New York friends "would be better advised to donate their money to countless endeavors like fighting street crime, and that to celebrate their philanthropy I would gladly wear a bronze plaque saying: TODAY  I WAS NOT RAPED OR MUGGED THROUGH THE KIND GENEROSITY OF THE LASKER/LOEB FOUNDATIONS.

Like Martha, Barbara was from the south.  In fact, Barbara really is the context for Martha.  Barbara was many things -- possibly even LBJ's mistress (the two held hands in public during his presidency sparking rumors) -- but she's forgotten today.

Sort of the way Martha Mitchell is forgotten in this supposed 'political thriller' of a mini-series about . . . Martha Mitchell.

That's sad and goes to a messy and unfocused series and narrative.  

What makes it worse is that Julia Roberts, onscreen, delivers in her role as Martha Mitchell.  When she's on the screen, there's a reason to watch and a reason for GASLIT to exist.  She brings life to the screen.  She's no longer "This Year's Girl," the press fascination with Julia in 1990 and 1991 epitomized that Elvis Costello song.  The face is lived in.  It gives it some warmth as well as some age.  Back in 1990 and 1991, Julia was passing off statements Audrey Hepburn made in films and interviews as her own.  Remembering that and hearing at least one industry insider (he's behind Julia's new movie with George Clooney, by the way) say Julia looked ''really old,'' we thought about that awful film ROBIN & MARION and how old Audrey looked in it.  Audrey was 46.  Julia will be 55 this year.  She's aged much better than Audrey did.  Julia can thank Jane Fonda and the others in the fitness industry who popularized physical activity for women.  And she looks good.  We say that to be fair (we know Julia and we don't care for her -- we have no reason to kiss her ass or to be kind).  

When Julia's not on screen?  Any lighting goes out of GASLIT -- any lighting and life.  

Sean Penn seems to believe he's in a comedy.  It's an awful performance divorced from reality and he's divorced from physicality as a result of utilizing so many facial prosthetics that he looks less like John Mitchell and more like a muppet.  The characterization and acting choices that get past the rubber and plastic on his face and neck seem to suggest that Penn sees John Mitchell as bi-polar or else the actor himself is currently unable to modulate or build a performance.  


As one of the co-leads, that's a serious problem.

So is elevating the character of John Dean above the character of Martha Mitchell in this supposed series about her being gaslighted or gaslit.  So is casting Dan Stevens in the role.  He has far too much screen time for an actor with zero chemistry.  He's like a low rent Dan Futterman.  In fact, we kept wondering why they didn't cast Dan Futterman, who actually has charisma, in this role?  

In too many of her films, weak casts and weak scripts got by because they were able to coast on Julia's screen presence.  And the same could have been true of GASLIT -- if the series had zoomed in on Julia.  And there's certainly more than enough to make a political thriller out of  Martha Mitchell's life.  


For example?  Immediately after the arrest of the Watergate operatives, Martha put in a call to a media contact with UPI and made many comments (including "I am a political prisoner . . . I know dirty things. I saw dirty things.") and, mid-conversation, the call was ended when a Committee to Re-Elect the President (CREEP)  pulled the phone out of the wall.  In the January 1972 issue of THE REALIST, Mae Brussells wrote:


Her telephone was pulled from the wall, five men silence her, and an unknown-substance was injected into her body against her will.

As a friend of the court and a citizen, I have a right to charge that there has been a violation of her civil rights by those in responsible positions.  It is in the national interest that she is permitted to talk freely before a responsible group.

We want to know what she saw.  Martha Mitchell is the wife of one of the most responsible men in this nation.  When she is treated in this manner, all of us are involved in having a right to know who is doing these things.

What happened to her could happen to any of us.

Those guilty of making her a prisoner are subject to $10,000 fine and 10 years in prison.  If a conspiracy is proven, each and every person involved in subject to the same penamlties.

The national interest is involved.  If the Democratic Party fails on behalf of all citizens to pursue this matter, and if they settle for a deal of silence, I shall file a Civil Rights suit myself on behalf of all United States citizens.

Free Martha Mitchell!

That incident alone is enough for one single season mini-series.  But this awful series is not interested in Martha any more than the actual SLATE podcast was.  That's the podcast that presented John Dean as a reliable source and spoke to him at length.  This is convicted felon John Dean.

Also, pay attention to this part, this is John Dean who got limited immunity for testifying against Richard Nixon before the US Senate and, after it was learned that Nixon taped conversations, the tapes were compared to John Dean's testimony of those conversations and John Dean was either lying to Congress or had a very bad memory.  Ulric Neisser examined the tapes and Dean's testimony for "John Dean's memory" which was published in the psychological journal COGNITION.  This is the abstract for the analysis that "the father of cognitive psychology" provided:

John Dean, the former counsel to President Richard Nixon, testified to the Senate Watergate Investigating Committee about conversations that later turned out to have been tape recorded. Comparison of his testimony with the actual transcripts shows systematic distortion at one level of analysis combined with basic accuracy at another. Many of the distortions reflected Dean's own self-image; he tended to recall his role as more central than it really was. Moreover, his memory for even the “gist” of conversations was quite poor except where that gist had been rehearsed in advance or frequently repeated. But while his testimony was often wrong in terms of the particular conversations he tried to describe, Dean was fundamentally right about what had been happening: the existence of a “cover-up” and the participation of various individuals in it. His testimony was accurate at a level that is neither “semantic” (since he was ostensibly describing particular episodes) nor “episodic” (since his accounts of the episodes were often wrong). The term “repisodic” is coined here to describe such memories: what seems to be a remembered episode actually represents a repeated series of events, and thus reflects a genuinely existing state of affairs.

"He tended to recall his role as more central than it really was."

He tended to do that and so did GASLIT 'creator' and writer Robbie Pikering.

Pat Nixon, Richard's wife, pops up in one scene where we see the back of her head and then her face -- briefly on both.  However, first ladies are prominent in SHOWTIME's new series THE FIRST LADY which focuses on Eleanor Roosevelt, Betty Ford and Michelle Obms.

Let's start with the bad: Viola Davis.

She's won an Academy Award, a BAFTA, a Golden Globe, a Tony and an Emmy.  Viola is a great actress.  Playing Michelle was going to be difficult for any actress.  It's been over forty years since Betty was First Lady and eleven years since she passed away.  Her life can be looked at objectively.  Even more so with regard to Eleanor.    It's not even been eight years since Michelle Obama ended her tenure as First Lady.

What will stand out?  What is the historical record?

"When they go low, we go high."  The mini-series includes that moment (sadly, just as a sound-byte) and it should include it because that will definitely be something for which Michelle is remembered -- and deservedly so.  Other things?  

There's a lot of garbage in her storyline -- her written storyline.  In some scenes, Michelle just has to react and doesn't have many lines -- Viola brings those to life.  But there are other scenes that are just atrocious -- we're referring to the writing. 


But the scene that is just outrageous and should not have taken place was shaped by Viola who suggested and demanded that Michelle call Barack the N-word.

We don't think she should have.  The point of the scene is that Michelle is mad and Barack is running for president and she thinks it's dangerous (in the scene she brings up what was done to JFK -- assassination). It's heavy drama that starts out light (praise for Michelle for remarks that are questionable -- the real record of her hospital work does not match that scene) and quickly moves into terror.  It's clumsy in its transitions.  It's offensive in the most dramatic moment.


If they had to agree to Viola's demand that the N-word be added to this made up scene -- the writers admit the scene never took place as written but is "imagined" -- they should have insisted that she play the line for humor.  This may be Viola's truth, it's not Michelle's and she'd never call her husband or her children the N-word.


 We're kind of bothered by what Viola did with the role.  There is criticism online about the ''duck face'' she makes while playing Michelle.  No, Michelle did not purse her lips constantly.  However, when Viola purses her lips, she does look more like Michelle than when Viola's face is in repose.  

And while we wish she'd not demanded the N-word, we wish she had demanded better for Michelle. The mini-series wants you to believe she came from a poor family.  They did not live in poverty.  If they had, Michelle's mother would have worked outside the home (which she didn't until after Michelle graduated high school).  Her father was an accomplished man with a well paying job, an active political career and he put two children through Princeton.  Michelle and her brother Craig are very proud of their father and all he accomplished and they have every right to be.

Viola was raised in poverty and maybe she related to those elements of the script; however, they are not Michelle's life and this really is a first-draft of history, THE FIRST LADY, so we wish more care had been taken with it.

The way Michelle's background is (mis)portrayed and that one scene are not the only problems for Viola.  Her main problem is O-T Fagbenle.  

Samuel L. Jackson made comments a few years back that we not only agreed with but that we had said ourselves.  When he got flack for them, we told him he should have hung it around our necks.  Because we would continue to make this criticism and we're about to make it again.

Barack Obama.  He is an American historical figure.  We are getting damn tired of seeing these roles -- such as with MLK -- being played over and over by Brits.  The British Black experience is not the same as the American experience.  In an entertainment industry that has so few opportunities for men of color, we don't get the need to go overseas to cast roles.  And it's beginning to suggest that certain studios are not casting American people of color because they don't think they're capable and that they don't believe they can play dignified.

Don't believe they can play dignified.

Soak that in.

And then grasp that, outside of Sidney Poitier and Denzel Washington, name an actor of color who's made it in Hollywood without playing the grinning character.  Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy and many others have carved out careers -- and given great performances -- in a racist industry.  But it's equally true that the types that they have played are the only types of roles that the industry regularly casts men of color in.  

This is not a minor issue.  We're not being Joan Crawford dismissing Greer Garson with "just another refugee from Hitler."

We're making a point about a racist system that repeatedly backs projects if they cast British males as MLK or Barack Obama or any other male of color who has some air of dignity around them.

In THE FIRST LADY, Barack is a secondary role, yes, but it is still a meaty role.

O-T Fagbenle is not up to the role. He gives a superficial performance and has no chemistry with Viola.  He doesn't look at all like Barack (Barack should be described as anorexic, he's very thin and always has been, Fagbenle is not even thin).  More to the point, he doesn't look well with Viola.

She's got on too much make up to be Michelle but this is a TV series so that's fine.  What's not is that the heavy make up emphasizes the lines on her face.  Not a problem for a 56-year-old woman, or shouldn't be.  Viola looks great. But Michelle is 58 right now and Viola's playing her in 2007, 15 years ago.  Viola looks good, a good 56.  She's too old for the role.  And this is a bigger problem because she looks like Fagbenle's mother.  He's 41.   He's playing Barack at 47.  He's 41.  And he looks younger.

Again, Viola looks like Fagbenle's mother.

He's not American.  He's not old enough for the role.  He doesn't look like Barack.  He's giving a bad performance.  And he's way too young to be playing Viola's husband.  (For the record, Barack is three years older than Michelle.  He's not younger than her and he's never looked younger than her.)

In her reaction moments or in scenes with Michelle's daughters or Michelle's mother, Viola nails down the role.  But those scenes can't overcome created (and false) drama or her co-star.

Gillian Anderson plays Eleanor Roosevelt.  

With Tina Fey's voice.  Or rather, Tina's imitation of Eleanor's voice (see the "TGS Hates Women" episode of 30 ROCK).  


Did she really speak like that?

We went in search of videos on YOUTUBE.  The interviews we found did have the trilling and the trembling but it didn't have, and this is late in life, these videos, when women's voices tend to drop, the chest voice that Tina and Gillian give to Eleanor.  She spoke much higher than they do.

Other than that, Gillian plays Eleanor in a better written and more complex portrayal than the First Lady has ever received in any TV project.  

Michelle Pfeiffer.

We love Michelle.  One of the reasons we avoided reviewing David E. Kelley shows for so long was because we love Michelle.  So we never reviewed his work until BIG LITTLE LIES and we only broke that rule because (a) we wanted to champion his strong work at a time when it seemed outlets had turned against him and (b) Laura Dern had made us aware, during filming, of how great the performances were.  

Watching THE FIRST LADY, we initially wondered about Michelle's chin movements as Betty Ford.  As we moved along (we've seen three episodes of THE FIRST LADY, four of GASLIT), we felt it was a good choice because it said a lot about her nerves, the deep waters she was in and much more.  Then we checked out some interviews with Betty Ford and saw that, indeed, she was making movements with her chin in most interviews.

Michelle succeeds the most in this series.  That's because she's one of the finest -- and most underrated --  actresses.  Some performers find praise for their recitation skills, some for their impersonation skills.  That's not Michelle and it's probably why her tremendous gifts do not get the amount of applause they deserve.  She's not the female Richard Burton, nor should she be, nor would she want to be.

Richard's reciting got him applause.  Michelle's not about that.  When her character speaks, her character is speaking as she should.  That might mean the dialogue is mumbled or even hard to hear.  Michelle burrows deep into a character and responds as that character.  

If Betty hadn't had that chin tick, we wouldn't have been bothered because Michelle made it a real and living part of the character she was playing.  She has created a Betty Ford that is completely believable so even if she'd created the chin tick it wouldn't have mattered for that reason.

Betty Ford feels like a real person.  Viola's Michelle doesn't feel real (for the reasons noted above) and Gillian's Eleanor often comes across like a parlor trick.  

Michelle creates a full blown character that seems real and alive.  Heartbreakingly so.   

Life is hard.  Michelle and Julia manage to convey that in THE FIRST LADY and GASLIT.  They deliver so strongly that it's a real shame that the other elements of their shows are so lacking.  Like we said in the beginning, capturing life on film and video is hard to do and the two offerings make that especially clear with their other cast members and with the level of writing.

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