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Substantially Similar--A Blog on IP Issues, Writing and Film

Albert Finney: The Actor Who Said "Sometimes You Have to Play Jazz"

by John Aquino on 02/10/19

On hearing the news of the death of the actor and director Albert Finney at the age of 82, I felt that a great actor of both stage and screen, an underrated director, and an individual comfortable in his own mind and skin had left us and the world was poorer in talent and experience as a result.

I never met him and don't know people who did, although I know some fellow graduates of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts or RADA (Great Finney quote: "On the Waterfront came out and there were 150 guys [at RADA] doing Brando impersonations.") The first film of his I saw was Tom Jones, based on Henry Fielding's 1749 novel. My sisters took me, and they refer to my experience watching it as occurring, "before John knew about things" because I kept asking question during the film, such as "What is he going to do with her?" In my high school class, our Latin teacher, a priest, who took pleasure in describing his experiences at movies that we were too young to see, called the eating scene between Finney and Joyce Redman "the dirtiest scene I've ever witnessed in which the actors were fully clothed." Finney's performance was that of a young, manly bold, brash but somehow decent and lovable man. In a way, I came of age thanks to Albert Finney.

Finney was born in Manchester and if his upbringing was more genteel than his classmates it was because his father was a successful bookie. His acting career began with him depicted as one of Britain's angry young men along with Alan Bates, Kenneth Haigh, and Tom Courtenay, but he quickly broke away from the pack. After an apprenticeship at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford, England in plays starring acting titans Charles Laughton, Paul Robeson, and Laurence Olivier, he starred in the film Sunday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) in which he  played a Manchester factory worker struggling with his job and two loves. His performance is real and deep. He is Brando with the emotions and not the mannerisms. Finney won the Golden Globe award as best newcomer. He turned down the lead in Lawrence of Arabia because he didn't want to spend six months in the desert and sign a long-term contract and instead took the title role in Tom Jones. The producers thought that it would not be a box office hit and so offered him less money than Lawrence would have paid and a percentage of the profits instead. The movie was tremendously successful, won the Academy Award for best picture, earned him a nomination for best actor, and made him a millionaire thanks to his profit percentage.

His popularity after Tom Jones was so overhwlming that his participation in his next film, Carl Foreman's all-star war drama The Victors (1963), was heavily promoted even though his part lasted only two minutes at the end and he spoke in Russian. He played a psychopathic killer in a remake of the 1937 film Night Must Fall (1964) and shocked fans of his lovable rascal in Tom Jones. He then, having the money to do so, returned to the stage for three years starring in Luther on Broadway and in productions at the new National Theatre, the Old Vic, and the Chicester Festival, thus creating a pattern of his alternating between film and theatre. He returned to films in 1967, starring with Audrey Hepburn in Two for the Road, a revolutionary romantic comedy with shifts back and forth between various times in a couple's marriage. The film was a big hit, and he could easily have continued as a romantic comedy lead but did no more. Instead, he produced and directed Charlie Bubbles (1968) about a lower-class man like himself who becomes a celebrity and finds success hollow. It was a personal project developed by his own production company. He could have continued as a director but, stung by the film's critical success and financial failure, directed only once more (The Bilko Inquest for television in 1984), and instead took on leading parts that were more like character roles such as the title part in the musical Scrooge (1970), for which he won the Golden Globe award as best actor in a musical, singing in the voice of an old man and thus disguising his robust  baritone, and the flamboyant detective Hercule Poirot in Murder on the Orient Express (1974), for which he was Oscar-nominated. He could easily have played Poirot in six more films, which his successor, Peter Ustinov, did, but found the makeup that turned him into a fat, balding Belgian detective, confining. He returned to the stage and played Shakespeare's Hamlet and Christopher Marlowe's all-but-unplayable Tamburlaine. In the 1980s, he came back to films, doing eight in the decade, including Daddy Warbucks in Annie (1982), in which he sang in his own voice, and The Dresser and Under the Volcano (both 1984), for both of which he was Oscar-nominated for best actor. In the next three decades, he played in independent films and innovative teleplays by Dennis Potter, won a best supporting actor nomination for Erin Brockovich (2002), and an Emmy and British academy award (BAFTA) for his television performance as Winston Churchill in The Gathering Storm (2002). Overall, he received five Academy Award nominations, 13 BAFTA nominations and one win, and nine Golden Globe nominations and two wins. Quite a record.

One of Finney's last major roles was as the father in Tim Burton's Big Fish (2003) in which Ewan McGregor played his younger self. It's heartbreaking in a way to see Finney, once a handsome and athletic young actor, as a dying, overweight teller of tall tales who embarrasses his son. But Finney was never concerned about his looks and gives a heartfelt performance as a man who never lied but embellished with no other motive than to make people happy. It's a wonderful film that I can see again and again.

I can't think of a single film in which Finney played that is an embarrassment, which is unusual in that most actors have a howler or even three or four in their filmography. It's also indicative of his careful selection of acting projects. He had no agent and so made all of his own decisions.

True to his pattern of following his own path, Finney declined a knighthood in 2002, saying such honors only perpetuated snobbery. He didn't appear to like talking about his craft. "My job is acting," he said, "and that is why I hate interviews or lectures, explaining myself to an audience." But when he did give interviews, sometimes he offered little gems about acting, such as that, when there are difficult moments between actors in the rehearsal process, "sometimes you just have to play jazz," which could also have been a description of his approach to his career. He was helpful to other actors and filmmakers: he did a brief cameo in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes Smarter Brother (1975), actor Gene Wilder's debut as a director, and took a small role in director Ridley Scott's first film, The Duelist (1976),  lending his name value and accepting as payment only a case of champagne because the budget was a small one. He even took an unbilled cameo in Steven Sodenbergh's Ocean's Twelve (2004) starring George Clooney. Finney also leant his clout to get The Biko Inquest on stage in 1984. Using the actual trial transcripts, it portrayed the trial examination of the death of Steven Biko, an anti-apartheid activist who was beaten to death in a South African prison. Finney played the attorney for the family on stage and co-directed the film in which he repeated his role.

Finney's career was rich and unconventional, evidently by choice. Throughout CBS News' onscreen obituary, the words "Big Fish" appeared throughout, clearly referencing the movie in which he appeared, but also an appropriate tribute to an actor who shaped his own career at his own pace and by making his own decisions.

Copyright 2019 by John T. Aquino

A Look at the Worst Lying Environment Until Now: We Don't Want to Go Back There

by John Aquino on 02/04/19

I've written on this blog about the current climate of untruth that has permeated much of today. Never say it can't be worse. But for people who were brought up to believe that an individual's word was his or her bond and that you don't do business with or elect people to office if you cannot trust them, it's a pretty bad time. Journalism, one of my three professions, has been disparaged by the president and others. This has weakened its mission, which is to distinguish true from false.

The worst time up to now might have been the 1950s, despite its Father Knows Best and Ozzie and Harriet reputation. That was the McCarthy era, named after Senator Joseph McCarthy, when people were falsely accused of being communists, both by political opportunists like McCarthy, and by their neighbors out of self-serving false patriotism. It affected most industries. People lost their reputations and their jobs, and some were permanently broken or committed suicide out of shame. J. Robert Oppenheimer, who had been lionized a decade before for his work on nuclear fusion, lost his security clearance in 1954 due to false rumors that he had spied for the Soviet Union that were spread by those who were envious of his accomplishments and fearful of his influence. Going to school in Washington, D.C., I had friends whose fathers worked in government or in industries with government contracts and who suddenly disappeared from class because their parents had to leave town. I questioned my Mom and Dad about it, and I remember once my father asked around and came home and gave me a lecture on the terrible consequences of spreading rumors. It was clearly based on what he had learned about the fate of one of the fathers.

The industry most visibly affected by McCarthyism was arguably that of people who made movies. The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) held hearings investigating the Hollywood film industry as to the extent of any communist influence. A blacklist was developed, and those on it, or rumored to be on it, became unemployable. Ten Hollywood film writers, known as the Hollywood Ten, refused to comply with the committee's demand that they provide names of people who might be communists, and they were jailed for contempt of Congress. And, importantly for the subject of lying, the Hollywood studios made movies that were written by blacklisted writers but  credited them to someone else. Some of the names were ficitious, others were actual people known as fronts. Some fronts were friends of the filmmakers or people who worked on the film in other capacities. But there was also groups of blacklisted writers who worked in a factory-like environment for a front. The blacklist was finally broken in 1960 when actor-producer Kirk Douglas and director Otto Preminger gave writer Dalton Trumbo, one of the Hollywood Ten, on-screen credit for his work on Spartacus for Douglas and Exodus for Preminger.

As evidence of this lying about credits, between 1980 and 2000 the Writers Guild of America restored 95 credits to blacklisted writers. Other credits have been changed by the guild since.

Those unfamiliar with the era can view the 1976 documentary Hollywood on Trial ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JQ-dKru9RWM ).The use of fronts was dramatized in two films. One was Trumbo (2015), which was based on Trumbo's experience. He went to prison and, when he was released, organized a network of writers who wrote under assumed names or who agreed to give credit to others. The film is buoyed by the enthusiastic performances of Bryan Cranston as Trumbo and Diane Lane as his wife Cleo and is largely true. It clearly conveys the complicity in the lie about credit by those who made films. Trumbo's script for The Brave One  won an Academy Award for best story, and at the 1957 awards ceremony the absence of "Richard Rich," the name credited for the script, was explained by the presenter as being due to Rich's wife having a baby. There was no baby, wife, or Rich. Everybody knew about the lie and the charade and went along with it. Trumbo is a flawed film, marred by its inaccurate portrayal of some individuals, such as Edward G. Robinson, and, by cardboard composite characters. It skirts some issues. For example, it paints The Brave One as a deeply personal project for Trumbo but doesn't mention that the producers had to settle an infringement suit that alleged Trumbo had stolen the story. And for all of its focus on human and inhuman actions, Trumbo doesn't delve as deeply as it could and should into the sordidness of the environment and the despair and suicides.

The second film is The Front (1976). It has an original script by Walter Bernstein that is fictitious but inspired by true stories. Bernstein, director Martin Ritt, and cast members Zero Mostel, Herschel Bernardi, Lloyd Gough, and Joshua Shelley had all been blacklisted. The film tells the story of a front, Howard Prince, who, although he is not a writer, fronts for a group of those blacklisted. Although Woody Allen playing Prince and Mostel as Hecky Brown were primarily comic actors, the film accurately presents the duplicitous depth of fronts in particular and the blacklist in general and their consequences. Hecky Brown's suicide after he becomes unemployable is based on the story of Philip Loeb, a friend of Mostel's who played the father on the television show The Goldbergs and was driven to take his own life after being blacklisted.

The example of a single writer ably conveys the lies that sprang from the blacklist. Philip Yordan was an efficient playwright and screenwriter. He seemed to work best when he adapted existing material. He won Academy Award nominations for Dillinger (1945), based on the career of gangster John Dillinger, and Detective Story (1951), co-written with Robert Wyler and based on the play by Sidney Kingsley. Yordan's play Anna Lucasta was inspired by Eugene O'Neill's Anna Christie. When he was unable to find a producer for his story about a Polish-America woman, Yordan brought the play to the American Negro Theatre Company, where it was adapted by playwright Abram Hill for an all-black cast, ran for two years, and the author credit was for Yordan only. Yordan continued having problems with credit. In 1949, he wrote three-quarters of House of Strangers, based on Jerome Weidman's novel, and was fired by producer Sol Siegel who didn't like his work. Director Joseph L. Mankiewicz rewrote the script (the dialogue does have a Mankiewicz-like snap), but the Writers Guild of America ruled that Yordan be given sole credit for the story and co-credit for the screenplay. Mankiewicz refused to share credit for a screenplay that he claimed he had basically written and so took no credit. House of Strangers wasn't a success, but it was remade and reconceived into a western in 1954 titled Broken Lance. The screenplay was written by Richard Murphy, but Yordan received a story credit because of his story credit for House of Strangers and won the Academy Award for best story for Broken Lance. Given what happened to him next, it seems oddly appropriate that he won his only Academy Award for a film that he had nothing to do with and that was based on a story for which his contribution is a matter of dispute.

With the blacklist, Yordan took on even more screenplays. But he had a plan. It is reported that, living in Europe, he had blacklisted writers working in cubicles in his basement. Concerning his work as a front, Yordan said later that he was just helping these writers out. In his deal with the writers, he took the writing credit and half of the writing fee.

Yordan's credits that were either ultimately eliminated, changed to that of a co-writer, or otherwise disputed include 17 films written over 15 years:  Man Crazy (1953), Naked Jungle (1954), Johnny Guitar (1954), The Last Frontier (1955), Men in War (1957), Gun Glory (1957), God's Little Acre (1958), Murder by Contract (1958), Day of the Outlaw (1959), Studs Lonigan (1960), King of Kings (1961), El Cid (1961), 55 Days at Peking (1962), Invasion of the Triffids (1963), Circus World (1964), The Battle of the Bulge (1965), and Custer of the West (1968). It is possible that there are more that just haven't come to light. A producer who worked with Yordan said he was a good screenwriter who let greed overshadow his talent. The industry knew about and disliked what he had done. After Yordan died in 2003, his name and image were not included in the "In Memoriam" segment at the Academy Awards ceremony, even though he was an Academy Award winner.

In the 1950s and early 60s, writer credits in films could not be trusted. There was a spider's web of lies spread throughout the industry. There were other webs in other industries when false accusations about individuals were made. And it all started in Congress. Those of us who have experienced a world where lying was condoned don't want to go back there.

Copyright 2019 by John T. Aquino


The Leopard--A Great Film, A Great Adaptation

by John Aquino on 01/29/19

I wrote a recent blog on the difference between great films and favorite films. Some of those reading were kind enough to write on my blog and in e-mails, adding their suggestions for great films. I had the opportunity to see a film I hadn't seen for years, The Leopard, released in 1963, based on the novel Il Gattopardo (the leopard, or, actually, the serval) by Giuseppe Tomas di Lampedusa, directed and co-written by Luchino Visconti, and starring Burt Lancaster, Alain Delon, and Claudia Cardinale. I actually saw it twice, given the FX movie channel's habit of showing a flm on Tuesday and then on the same film on Thursday and then on Saturday. Whether or not it is a favorite film will depend on your taste. Some will find it slow, and its battles and revolutions are backdrops for the main story, which is the gradual evolution of the nation and culture of Italy and Sicily as a result of the Risorgimento ("Resurrgence") that unified Italy into a nation state. But it is a great movie and a great film adaptation. The latter is true because The Leopard is a faithful film version of a novel that also lacks big moments.


The tendency in adapting novels (as well as true stories) is to make them more cinematic and more audience-pleasing. One fairly typical example is Barry Levinson's 1984 film version of Bernard Malamud's baseball novel The Natural.
It was financially successful, critically well-received, and is well regarded by both baseball fans and those who do not follow the sport. But as an adaptation, it has been ridiculed by those who prize the Malamud novel. (SPOILER ALERT). The film version makes the character of Roy Hobbs sympathetic and fairly simplistic--a great young ballplayer who is robbed by fate of his chance for greatness and is provided with another chance later in life--and gives the story a happy ending--Hobbs hits a home run, winning the game, achieves baseball greatness, and settles into a happy life with his wife Iris and their son. The home run gives the film a spectacular close as the ball shatters the night game lights, showering the field with sparks as Hobbs runs the bases. The novel's Hobbs is more complex and flawed--he takes a bribe to throw the game, changes his mind, but strikes out anyway, losing his chance for greatness and happiness with Iris and their child. In movies, to paraphrase The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, when there's a choice between a happy ending and a bleak one, go for happy and forget about the book. Similarly, King Vidor's film adaptation of Leon Tolstoy's War and Peace, what some would label an historical costume drama like The Leopard, ends with Natasha and Pierre walking off together, albeit stiffly, and doesn't delve into how the novel ends, with Tolstoy's suggestion in his epilogue that Pierre and Nikolai, the son of Prince Andrei, will join the 1825 Decembrist revolt by the liberals against the Tsar. In adapting a book to film, filmmakers generally opt for thinking film and not respect for the source. The legendary film director Alfred Hitchcock was asked why, rather than using as a source for his mystery/crime films short stories or obscure novels, he didn't film a great crime novel such as Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment. Hitchcock answered that with little-known works he was freer to make changes to exploit the cinematic aspects of the original but with a literary masterpiece he was less free. One can argue, as I and others do, that Visconti respected The Leopard and yet still translated it cinematically.

One can imagine the traditional approach to adapting Il Gattapardo: add lots of battles and steamy love scenes, eliminate much of the novel's debates between characters, and end with the lovers in each others arms looking to a bright future in a unified Italy so that it ends happily. Instead, at a length of 187 minutes in its most available version, Visconti's The Leopard explores its story at a pace similarl to the novel. Fabrizio Corbero, Prince of Salini in Sicily, decides to neither fight nor resist the Risorgimento. He votes for it and argues against those who oppose it. He insists, "Things will have to change in order that they will remain the same" and "This isn't the end of anything, it is the beginning of everything." He is offered a chance to join the new Senate and declines, saying "I belong to an unlucky generation, astride between two worlds and ill-at-ease in both. And what is more I am completely without illusions. Now, what would the Senate do with me, an inexperienced legislator who lacks the faculty for self-deception, an essential requisite for wanting to guide others. No, I cannot lift a finger in politics. It would be bitten off." But the prince's nephew Tancredi rides with the tide and marries, not a fellow aristocrat, but Angelica, the daughter of newly-wealthy former peasant. The film ends with a 40-minute ball in which Tancredi introduces Angelica as his bride. After the ball, Prince Salini walks home alone.

It's a true adaptation of the novel. It is also a magnificent film. The ball that ends the movie proceeds in painstaking detail, with gorgeous gowns, lavishly photographed displays of food, and lush music by Nino Rota (assisted by an unpublished waltz by Giuseppe Verdi). And all the while, Prince Salini struggles through the evening, feeling, as he says, "ill-at-ease" in both worlds. He says he has a headache. He washes his faces, looks deeply into his reflection, and cries. He walks into another room and stares at a 1778 painting by the French artist Jean-Baptiste Greuze that's in a style and subject that he is unused to. The title, appropriately, is "The Father's Curse, and the Son's Punishment," for the Risorgimento will bring not only unification but, in 60 years, the dictator Benito Mussolini and world war. He returns to the ball and sits with people from what will soon be called the middle class and with whom he has nothing in common. When he walks home, he passes a priest and altar boy on their way to early morning mass, kneels out of respect, and, while kneeling, prays, saying, "O faithful star, when will you give me an appointment less ephemeral, far from all this, in your own region of perennial certitude." He rises and walks into the shadows as the film ends.

The Leopard was not a big success in the U.S., coming out in the same year as such epics as Cleopatra and How the West Was Won. But it won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, Italy's David di Donatello for best production, and the best foreign film award from the National Board of Review. It is the director Martin Scorsese's favorite film. And it is included in Steven Schneider's book 1001 Films You Must See Before You Die.

As I wrote earlier, it is not for everybody's taste. I remember an outing with my family to see Stanley Kubrick's 1975 film version of William Makepeace Thackeray's Barry Lyndon, to which The Leopard is similar as an adaptation and in style and pace. My late brother Jim walked out and called it "Borrey Lyndon." I can imagine Jim would have a similar view of The Leopard, calling it "Lousy Leopard" or "Longey Leopard" or something.

I am not even sure The Leopard can be a favorite film of mine, one that I can dip into again and again. Time will tell. But I think it is a great one and an example of how to credibly adapt a well-known and respected book.

Copyright 2019 by John T. Aquino

Do People Make Themselves Believe the Lie is True?

by John Aquino on 01/24/19

Can liars really believe but the lies they tell are true?

I ask this because we are living in a time in which people in high places openly lie, seemingly without regret. I've also written on the topic a fictionalization in fact-based films. In those situations, someone is usually inventing things to make the story more dramatic or to put himself, as a character in the story, in a better light. The assumption is that there is a truth from which the writer deliberately veers. And yet there are recent situations where something different seems to be happening.  I never understood the line “the self-deception that believes the lie” in the Rodgers and Hart song “I Wish I Were in Love Again” because self-deception is deceiving ones’ self and so the addition that the person believes the lie is redundant. But in today’s world, the phrase begins to make more sense. Maybe it isn't redundant. One can, arguably, deceive oneself into doing things or saying things without really, deep down inside, believing that the deception is true. But can a person who tells a lie really believe it?

Look at two separate but related situations. In 2008, Hillary Clinton recalled in a speech at George Washington University that in 1996 when her husband was president her plane landed in Bosnia under sniper file. A reception to greet her was cancelled, and she and her party “just ran with our heads down to get into our vehicles to get to our base.” It was quickly pointed out that news footage shows that there was an arrival reception in which she was greeted by smiling officials and a little girl who recited a poem without any sign of shooting or panic. Many were quoted as saying the area Clinton was in was relatively peaceful, and there were no reports of the snipers attacking the plane. Her supporters countered that her party was given flax jackets and warned of snipers. But the news footage shows the incident she described just didn’t happen and that she appears to have taken the rumors of snipers and made them true in her telling. Her 2008 presidential campaign acknowledged that she may have “misspoken,” and the hit to her credibility is thought to have negatively affected her campaign.

In 2015, NBC anchor Brian Williams recounted in a New York Rangers hockey game broadcast during a tribute to a veteran how in Iraq in 2003 a helicopter on which he was traveling was forced down after it was hit by a rocket grenade. He and his NBC News team were rescued and kept alive by an armor mechanized platoon from the U.S. Army 3rd Infantry, Williams said, praising the military. Quickly, soldiers who were on the helicopter and in the area questioned his account, saying the news team was never under fire. Some pointed out that Williams' on-air reporting in 2003 made no mention of the attack. A week later, Williams retracted his story, saying he may have conflated it with another incident in 2003 in which the helicopter ahead of his had been hit with a rocket grenade but landed safely. Again, a sliver of fact appears to have been embellished. But the apology wasn’t good enough, Williams, as a broadcast journalist, was supposed to double-check his facts, and he was suspended and removed from his anchor position. He now reports for the network’s cable channels.

Both Clinton and Williams should have realized there were other people on the aircrafts who knew what really happened. Did they consciously lie, assuming they would get away with it, and risk their careers or did they come to really believe that what they said was true? Williams suggested that the fog of battle and the 12-years since the incident may have clouded his memory, which is possible. But Williams had been telling the story for several years, on the David Letterman show and other venues, elaborating each time. This happens in Hollywood, where people create stories for movies, and, if the stories are based on fact, they have no problem in inventing incidents to make the stories better. They tell stories at parties, they pitch stories to producers, they embellish the stories to draw more laughter and often expand their role in the story. The actor David Niven, a well-known raconteur, wrote two autobiographical books about his early life, his experience as a soldier in World War Two, and, most especially, his time in Hollywood: The Moon Is a Balloon and Bring on the Empty Horses. Both were very popular, but after his death his authorized biographer Graham Lord, in a book titled Niv, painstakingly analyzed Niven’s stories and demonstrated, among other things, how Niven was in London during a battle where he claimed he led his troops and how he wasn’t present during a number of events he described. He must have heard about them from someone else and inserted himself as a participant if not the hero. Niven promoted the books on television programs around the world, happily telling these stories. The self-deception that believes the lie?

I came upon another example recently. The 1983 movie My Favorite Year is about a faded movie star named Alan Swann who agrees to appear on the King Kaiser tv show in 1954 and, because of his legendary drinking, a young writer on the show is assigned to look after him. They go through a number of madcap adventures together. The film was reported to be based on the experiences of film director Mel Brooks, who, as a young television writer, was assigned to look after the film actor Errol Flynn during his time guest starring on Sid Caesar’s “Your Show of Shows” for which Brooks wrote. Brooks has described several times how he was holed up with Flynn for several days in a hotel room with two Cuban prostitutes while he prepared for "Your Show of Shows." The movie was produced by Brooks’ production company and was directed by Richard Benjamin. Brooks later noted that the film was highly fictionalized and that Flynn’s behavior in the show on which he appeared was uneventful. On the DVD commentary, Benjamin said that the character of Alice Miller in the film was based on a real-life “Your Show of Shows” writer. All well and good. Peter O’Toole, playing Swann, was nominated for a best actor Academy Award, the film was a big hit and was later made into a musical that won awards for Andrea Martin as best supporting actress in a musical. The only problem was that Flynn never appeared on “Your Show of Shows.” He was a guest on a few other television shows, including “The Colgate Comedy Hour” with Abbott and Costello. But he was never on “Your Show of Shows,” bringing into question the statements Brooks and Benjamin made. Another great television pioneer Milton Berle claimed when My Favorite Year debuted that the film was based on his experiences with Flynn, which were well know throughout Manhattan. Some have posited that Brooks did spend time with Flynn but that Flynn was too drunk to go on--although no promotion of a "Your Show of Shows" or Caesar's subsequent show "Caesar's Hour" has been produced and Brooks indicates in a 1997 interview fhat Flynn did do the show (see https://www.filmscoremonthly.com/articles/2001/15_Aug---Lost_Issue_Mel_Brooks_Interview.asp . Evidently, contrary to Brooks' comments, Flynn didn't appear on "Your Show of Shows."

The self-deception that believes the lie? And if people in a position of authority--presidents, government officials, filmmakers in describing the basis for their films--consciously or subconsciously lie, whom are we to believe?

Copyright 2019 by John T. Aquino

What Makes a Good Sermon?

by John Aquino on 01/16/19

It snowed in the Washington, D.C. area on Saturday and Sunday. The roads were terrible, and we watched the Archdiocese of Washington's "Sunday Mass" on television. And I found myself ruminating, once again, on what makes a good sermon, whether delivered by a priest, minister, rabbi or imam.


I am most familiar with sermons or homilies delivered at Sunday masses. There are television masses such as the one we heard broadcast around the country. My sister in Louisville told me that there it was called "The Mass on the Air," which her mother-in-law enjoyed watching. For years in Washington, the televised mass was called "The Mass for Shut-ins." Although some or much of the audience may indeed be elderly or ill, I always thought that the title that was restricting the mass to this group was misnamed because the audience could include the snow-bound. I also thought it was insulting to those who were getting up there in years to call them shut-ins. The name was changed not too long ago to "Sunday Mass." The mass is taped at the crypt church of the Basilica Shrine of the Immaculata Conception. It runs 30 minutes, no more, no less. 

The sermons for the televised "Sunday Mass" have to be short because of the limited time of the broadcast. I talked to the director of the program once, and he said that the priests who gives the sermon are told it must run no more than four minutes, otherwise the sermon will be cut off. 

If asked what makes a good sermon, some would say brevity. I remember my brother Jim said that the best sermon he ever heard was delivered on a hot July day. The priest said, "If you think it's hot now, be good." And that was it. Others come to Mass to receive communion and also to hear a thoughtful sermon. Ten to 15 minutes seems reasonable. At one mass my wife and I attended, the visiting priest giving the homily was using it to preview the all-day retreat that he would give that week. The mass started at 5:00 p.m. on a Saturday. The church bell chimes every Saturday at 4:55 to indicate mass is about to begin and at again at 6:00 when it is likely to be over. This retreat priest finished his sermon just as the 6:00 bell was chiming, which meant the rest of the mass was still to come. Some priests regularly give long sermons, and it is ususlly the case that they could be shorter. Some seem to take pride in speaking without notes, although this can mean the sermon will ramble  In the play Mass Appeal by Bill C. Davis, a young deacon is warned by an older priest about the "cough test." If the congregation thinks that sermon is going on too long or the people do not understand it, the number of coughs will increase. In the staging, a cough is illustrated not only by the sound of coughing but by a colored spotlight. Half-way through his first sermon, the young deacon is bathed in the lights, which means he has produced a coughing congregation.

One's reaction to sermons is influenced by one's preferences and attention span. What is long for one person may not be long enough for another. This why the four-minute time restriction of "Sunday Mass" provides an interesting test. Can someone deliver a thoughtful and interesting sermon in just four minutes? The homily on Sunday was delivered by Rev. Peter A. Smith, pastor of St. Augustine Catholic Church in Washington, D.C.  The feast for the day was the Baptism of Jesus, and he noted that at the moment of Jesus' baptism the voice of God could be heard saying, "This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased." Father Smith then talked about pleasing God. He noted there are bracelets carrying the acronym and question we should ask ourselves, WWJD (What Would Jeasus Do?). He suggested instead the acronym and question, WWPG (What Would Please God?)." He quoted from the Thomas Merton prayer, which was a favorite of my mother's, that begins "My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going," and continues, "But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you." Similarly, he quoted from the movie Chariots of Fire in which an Olympic runner says,  "I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel his pleasure." The key to pleasing God, Father Smith suggested, is not ability but availability.

As you can see, Father Smith put a great deal into that four minutes. What makes a good sermon? Preparation and focused thought. The sermon doesn't have to be brief. But, as Father Smith demonstrated, it can be.

Copyright 2019 by John T. Aquino