Tuesday, August 11, 2015

God Speed: My Father, Rafael Matos

Rafael Matos

My father passed away on Saturday after a long illness. I was with him for several days up until the day he died and was able to tell him many times how much I loved him. I'll be forever grateful for those opportunities.

I inherited many of my dad's traits: his curiosity, his love of travel and geography, his unbreakable desire for independence and stability. Indirectly through him I acquired a love of history, a fascination for the 20th century in particular, a penchant for quality and an eye for beauty. My dad could be difficult but he was much calmer in his later years. And even though he didn't say it much I knew from his actions that he loved me. He even had a special smile just for me and I got to see the last one just a few days before he died.

My love of classic film is partly due to my dad. Every time I watch an old movie I think of my dad. How old was he when the film was made? What was he like as a kid/teenager/adult? Did he watch this movie in the theater when it was released? What did he think of it?

I miss my pai ("dad" in Portuguese). I'll miss him forever but I know he's not suffering anymore.

Some years ago I wrote two pieces on this blog about my father. I encourage you to read them.

God speed Pai!

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Documentary Review: Best of Enemies (2015)

Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Several months ago I watched the documentary Gore Vidal: United States of Amnesia (2013). Then I watched it again. And again. And again. I was mesmerized by this brilliant documentary as well its fascinating subject. It was timely, filmed shortly before Vidal’s death in 2012, powerful and illuminating with almost unfettered access to Vidal himself as well as his friends and colleagues. In that documentary we see some footage of the infamous William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal debates. I was fascinated and wanted to learn more about their debates as well as their vitriolic hatred for each other. That’s when Best of Enemies (2015) stepped in.

Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley Jr in BEST OF ENEMIES, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Directed by Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville and released by Magnolia Pictures, Best of Enemies tells the story of Buckley and Vidal’s debates during the 1968 Republican and Democratic national conventions and broadcast by ABC News. William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal were on the opposite ends of the political spectrum. Buckley was a staunch conservative and Vidal an unapologetic liberal. Both men were highly intelligent and well-spoken commentators. They both had failed at getting into public office, Buckley ran for Mayor in 1965 and Vidal for Congress in 1960. They recognized television as a powerful platform to deliver their political ideologies and both accepted ABC News’ invitation to debate with each other on live television. What resulted was explosive and would forever change TV news and the lives of both men.

William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal in BEST OF ENEMIES, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Buckley and Vidal hated each other. A lot. In the opening scene of the documentary we see archival footage from the 1970s of Gore Vidal. He’s giving the cameras a tour of his stunning home, nestled on a cliff in Ravello, Italy. Vidal takes the camera crew into the bathroom where a framed collection of photographs from the infamous debates hangs above his bathtub. Vidal snidely says of Buckley “he’s a well-known right-wing commentator whose name seldom passes my lips.” Buckley didn’t like to talk about Vidal either. ABC News approached him first about doing a debate with a liberal commentator during the conventions. He said he would not want to debate with a communist or Gore Vidal. They gave him Vidal.

When Buckley lost his cool. BEST OF ENEMIES, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Best of Enemies stitches together footage from the ten debates, ABC news coverage, some of it unedited, interviews with a wide variety of talking heads as well as archival footage of both Buckley and Vidal. Both sides are represented as equally as possible however things don’t turn out as well for Buckley who lost his cool in one of the last debates. It’s one of the most infamous moments in TV news history. Vidal calls Buckley a Crypto-Nazi and Buckley calls Vidal a queer and threatens to sock him in the face. That moment is pivotal in the documentary as well as the lives of both men.

Gore Vidal and Paul Newman in BEST OF ENEMIES, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Classic film fans, especially ones interested in the culture of the 1960s, will be fascinated with this documentary. It provides a lot of context of what was going at the time politically and culturally. Gore Vidal was no stranger to Hollywood. He was a screenwriter and novelist and his films include The Catered Affair (1956), Ben-Hur (1959), Suddenly, Last Summer (1959), The Best Man (1964), Myra Breckenridge (1970) and Caligula (1979). In 1968, his novel Myra Breckenridge had just been published and was hot topic. Clips from the film adaptation can be seen in the documentary as well as clips from Ben-Hur, Caligula and The Best Man. There is an extended reference to Sunset Blvd. (1950) too. Classic film enthusiasts will spot familiar faces such as Raquel Welch and Henry Fonda and there is also archival footage of Paul Newman and Arthur Miller at the Democratic national convention. Newman was good friends with Vidal and was often in the studio during the debates.

The filmmakers chose some excellent interviewees for the documentary. My favorites include Dick Cavett (talk show host), Richard Wald (former president of NBC News), George Merlis (ABC publicist), Christopher Hitchens (political essayist who passed in 2011), James Wolcott (Vanity Fair), Sam Tanenhaus (biographer of Buckley) and Reid Buckley (Buckley’s brother). I also really loved the commentary from Brooke Gladstone of NPR who put the debates in the context of the history of TV news and John McWhorter of Columbia University who analyzed the language and the importance of the discourse. Fun fact: at one point Buckley exclaims “this is balderdash now!” It was also neat to listen to actors John Lithgow and Kelsey Grammer narrate written pieces from Buckley and Vidal.

Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley Jr in BEST OF ENEMIES, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

 Here are some of my favorite quotes from the documentary:

“Networks, did they deal in controversy? No. Did they invite controversy? No. They were in the center. They were cementers of idea not disruptors of idea.” – Richard Wald, NBC News

“Bill Buckley was the first modern conservative intellectual to see that ideological debates were cultural debates. And what he did was to put conservativism on the march and that’s the creation of the movement we have today.” Sam Tanenhaus

“ABC was the Budget Car Rental of TV news” – Frank Rich, New York Magazine

“This has always been an anti-intellectual country. These days anybody who spoke like those two men in public would be seen to be heartless.” – John McWhorter, Columbia University

“The network nearly shat.” – Dick Cavett on the Buckley-Vidal incident

“Argument is sugar and the rest of us are flies.” – Richard Wald, NBC News

“More and more we are divided into communities of concern. Each side can ignore the other side and live in its own world. It makes us less of a nation because what binds us together is the pictures in our heads. But if those people are not sharing those ideas they’re not living in the same place.” – Uncredited

The reason I was most drawn to this documentary is my fascination with Gore Vidal. He is arguably one of the most interesting public figures of the 20th century. This documentary satiated my interested and piqued a new one about his rival Buckley.

William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal in BEST OF ENEMIES, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

I could go on for a long time about this documentary but I don’t want to spoil it for you. Instead I want to give you a plan of action. First, watch Gore Vidal: United States of Amnesia on Netflix Instant. Second, do a little research on William F. Buckley Jr. to keep things balanced. Third, find out which theater near you is showing Best of Enemies and go see it! This documentary premiered at Sundance to much critical acclaim. It was the opening film for the recent AFI Docs festival. You can watch at select theatres starting tomorrow. Visit the official site for the schedule.

Summary: Best of Enemies (2015) is a powerful documentary depicting a tumultuous time in political history, a turning point in TV news and highly contentious relationship between two intellectual equals William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal. This film entertains as much as it provides history and context. I highly recommend it.

Thank you to Magnolia Pictures for sending me a screener to review!

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Book Haul and Summer Reading Video

I'm being brave and venturing out into the world of YouTube again. I've done a few videos in the past but with much trepidation. I'm not comfortable with public videos, ratings or comments yet but I won't let that stop me from trying out some videos. I was inspired by (i.e. stole the idea from) Vanessa from Stardust who has an excellent YouTube channel and also Aurora of Once Upon a Screen... who encouraged me to be more adventurous with my blog.

In this video I share with you my recent book haul as well as my six summer reading titles. Enjoy!

P.S. The Fritz Lang film I was trying to remember was Harakiri (1919).
P.P.S. I promise to do shorter videos in the future. I just really like talking about Fritz Lang and books apparently.

Titles mentioned:
'Tis Herself by Maureen O'Hara
The Man Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda by Devin McKinney
Considering Doris Day by Tom Santopietro
Empire of Dreams: The Epic Life of Cecil B. DeMille by Scott Eyman

The Many Faces of Josephine Baker: Dancer, Singer, Activist, Spy by Peggy Caravantes
Memoirs of a Professional Cad by George Sanders
Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast by Patrick McGilligan
Stepin Fetchit: The Life & Times of Lincoln Perry by Mel Watkins
Hollywood in Kodachrome by David Wills
The Dawn of Technicolor: 1915-1935 by James Layton and David Pierce

Monday, July 20, 2015

Memoirs of a Professional Cad by George Sanders

Memoirs of a Professional Cad
by George Sanders
Dean Street Press
Originally Published 1960
9781910570463 - Paperback

Barnes and Noble 

“You should watch the film for George Sanders.” In one form or another this is a line I’ve repeated often during my years as a classic film fan. George Sanders could charm audiences regardless of the quality of the film he was in. He made fine classics such as All About Eve and Foreign Correspondent as well as questionable clunkers. Every single film he was in was improved simply by his presence.

“...on the screen I am invariably a sonofabitch, in life I am a dear, dear, boy.” – George Sanders

George Sanders charmed fans on the printed page as well with Memoirs of a Professional Cad. Written and published in 1960, this memoir is essentially a collection of essays broken up into 23 chapters and split into Books I and II. Each chapter has a specific theme or multiple themes as Sanders might decide to veer off into a rant or go on a tangent. As I was reading the memoir I started giving chapters different titles. For example chapter 9 I called “On impulsiveness”, chapter 11 “On how to say no and living the good life” and Book II chapter 4, “Musings on Albert, the butler”. With a few exceptions, most of the chapters stand alone as individual essays. Book II chapters 6 and 7 are presented as a pair. Chapter 6 recounts the filming of Solomon and Sheba which leads into chapter 7 which deals with the sudden death of Tyrone Power.

“To the best of my knowledge, my father came in the mail.” – George Sanders

The essays range on a variety of topics. We learn about his family and early days in Russia, his schooling in England and a variety of jobs he held before he became an actor. Sanders shared some hilarious stories of doing work for a cigarette-manufacturing company. He traveled through Argentina and Chile promoting the cigarettes. He came up with a clever marketing plan: dropping cigarette packages from a Bristol Bi-Plane into remote areas of Chile. He was “thrown out” of many jobs before this one but he seemed to make this one stick. However it all ended when he found himself in a duel with a widow’s fiancee and was consequently thrown into jail. His employer came to his rescue but only long enough to bail him out of a jail and bring him back to England. He was unceremoniously fired shortly after and both the fiancee and Sanders survived the ordeal.

“...the driving force of my life has always been laziness; to practice this, in reasonable comfort, I have even been prepared, from time to time, to work.” – George Sanders

This was a lucky turn of events because his next job brought him into the presence of budding actress Greer Garson. She introduced him to acting and legions of George Sanders fans should be forever grateful to her for doing so. In his memoirs, we learn about Sanders’ early days in theater, the time he bailed out of a Rodgers & Hammerstein Broadway production of South Pacific and behind-the-scenes stories of films such as The Moon and Sixpence (1942), All About Eve (1950), Captain Blackjack (1950), Journey to Italy (1954) , Solomon and Sheba (1959) and Bluebeards Ten Honeymoons (1960)

George Sanders had some wonderful observations on Hollywood, acting, work, school, relationships and his own personal quirks. The book is endlessly quotable and I bookmarked many a passage that I heartily agreed with, that made me laugh or that made me scratch my head. Here are some of my favorite quotes:


“I arrived at the conclusion that to enjoy one’s life to its fullest, one must build contrast into it. And the more extreme the contrast the fuller the life.” 

“The average audience is also incapable of distinguishing between a good actor and a good part. The actor gets the credit every time when more often than not the credit should go to the writer.”

“The mortality rate among stars is extremely high, whereas a good character actor is almost indestructible.”

“It is one of the sad ironies of life that one has to make money in order to spend time but waste time in order to make money.”

“Common household services are better paid for in money than in marriage, which is liable to produce the disagreeable results of a grossly distended waistline coupled with conversation confined to comparative prices of ground beef.”

“To begin with, it is impossible to be in love with a woman without experiencing on occasions an irresistible desire to strangle her. This can lead to a good deal of ill-feeling. Women are touchy about being strangled.”

“To the Englishman it is a continual source of amazement and irritation that the rest of mankind does not consist of other Englishmen.”


“My first appearance on the screen was as one of the gods in The Man Who Could Work Miracles. The part called for me to ride half-naked and shiny with grease, at four o’clock in the morning during one of England’s coldest winters, on a horse which was also coated with grease.”

“For a long time I was considered the ideal actor to play sneering, arrogant, bull-necked Nazi brutes.”

On getting his Oscar for his role in All About Eve. “I was grateful and flattered to get mine, but apart from making my already large ego one size larger it did absolutely nothing for me.”

On Marilyn Monroe “I lunched with her once or twice during the making of the film and found her conversation had unexpected depths. She showed an interest in intellectual subjects which was, to say the least, disconcerting. In her presence it was hard to concentrate.”

“Zsa Zsa was like champagne, and I as her husband was hard put to it to keep up with her standard of effervescence”

“There was no air-conditioning in the studio and the heat was so great at times that one had to sit between scenes with ice cubes wrapped in towels pressed against all possible parts of the anatomy in order to survive.”

Sanders talks in detail about his failed marriage to Zsa Zsa Gabor (and her obsession with hair dryers). He was writing his memoirs during a happy time in his life when he was married to Benita Hume. She’s only discussed once in the book at any length where Gabor’s antics take up entire essays. I also noticed that besides a fleeting mention of him in the first chapter, George Sanders does not talk at all about his brother, actor Tom Conway. I imagine at this point in Sander's life they were not on the best of terms.

I’ve been looking forward to reading this book for years. I have been hunting down an elusive copy of the original out-of-print hardcover but much to my dismay I could never find a reasonably priced one. That’s when Dean Street Press came to the rescue! This small British publisher brought George Sanders’ memoir as well as his two mystery novels back into print. They were very generous and sent me an e-book version of Sanders’ memoir which I was very grateful to read. I still want a physical copy but now I’m debating whether I’ll buy the reissue paperback or wait for a good original hardcover copy.

“I had had since the beginning a profound sense of unreality about my newly acquired profession which the atmosphere of Hollywood did nothing to dispel. I never really thought I would make the grade. And let’s face it, I haven’t.” – George Sanders

I really wanted to love this book but in the end I just really liked it. Some of the essays are absolute gems and others were so-so. Every chapter had some pearl of wisdom, bit of insightful musing or humorous anecdote to devour so I felt very satisfied by the end. The publisher suggests that Sanders’ memoir is somewhat fictional. There is an after by Ulla Watson, Sanders’ niece. She also backs up the claim of Sanders as unreliable narrator pointing out that Sanders often downplayed his skills and sometimes his lack of confidence caused him to bail out of projects.

Whether we can believe everything George Sanders says or not it doesn’t really matter. Memoirs of a Professional Cad is an entertaining and enthralling insight into the mind of one of the 20th century’s most charming actors.

This is my second entry for my 2015 Classic Film Book Summer Reading Challenge!


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