Hitch

Christopher-Hitchens-007

One thing I won’t say about Christopher Hitchens: RIP.

To a man as combative as he was, that would amount to a curse. Wherever he is now, he isn’t resting. And he wouldn’t want to be.

It’s all a guess where we go after this; he’d have said (in fact he did say, quite often) nowhere. I saw him make this point in person a couple of years ago, thanks to my friend Derek, who took me to see him at the University of Central Florida, debating the existence of God with Dinesh D’Souza. If there’s a more absurd topic to be debating, I can’t imagine it, but that ultimately didn’t matter. This was a show, and it was like watching a phlegmatic old bulldog facing down a yipping little terrier… the bone they were fighting over was much less interesting than the clash of style and personality.

Arriving at the stadium that night, I noticed a large number of buses in the parking lot. They were from local megachurches — the faithful had come, it seemed, to provide a cheering section for D’Souza. Or for God, I suppose in case He happened to be behind at half time. They filled the stands, row after row of earnest white people in sweaters, and at first I was a little nervous for Hitch.

I needn’t have been. The evangelicals were polite to him — they cheered and applauded whenever D’Souza made a point, but they listened to Hitchens thoughtfully and without making rude sounds. For my own part, I disagreed with everything Hitchens was saying, probably as strongly as they did. I’m no atheist. But this wasn’t a man you would dream of heckling. He didn’t mind standing in front of hundreds of people and calmly asserting they were full of shit. In fact, he obviously relished it. Hitchens had an intellect as sharp as a rapier, but he wielded it like a baseball bat.

Dogmatic, arrogant, intolerant, opinionated, often plain wrong and insistent about it. And yet, it was impossible to hate him, or even dislike him. You had to respect his intelligence and his eloquence, but it wasn’t just respect he inspired. He was lovable. He wore his vices beautifully, for one thing: he was an unapologetic smoker, drinker, and  hellraiser. His opinions, even the most provocative ones, were rooted in principles: honesty, freedom, fairness, honor. He may not have been at peace with the world, particularly its fools and scoundrels, but he was at peace with himself. He had a sense of humor, and it was large, inclusive and self aware. He suffered, as we all do, but he never used his suffering for the purpose of self aggrandizement. Instead it made him more reflective, more vulnerable, more human.

He faced his own death bravely and unflinchingly, without flourishes or drama. Some speculated he might experience a deathbed conversion from atheism, a suggestion he waved away with practiced loftiness. He was deeply rooted in this world, in his own time and in the present moment. He was awake; he was, more than anything, alive. His disbelief in God as much of the world conceptualizes Him was really beside the point. To me personally, god is an energy, a force, a power. And Christopher Hitchens embodied it.

My Week With Halle, er, Marilyn

Nobody knows about this but me and her. The tabloids never suspected. It was private, just between us. I want to protect that. But on the other hand, several days have passed since it ended, so I guess it’s OK to finally talk about it.

I spent a week with Halle Berry. Yes, me, Eddie Selover! Just a nobody. Until now.

It happened in Spain. Halle’s over there making a movie with Tom Hanks. She’ll be there for a while longer, because she broke her leg chasing a goat. Spain, ay caramba…there are goats everywhere. And the ground is so rocky! You really have to be careful. Anyway, she’s on the mend now, that’s the important thing. Heal fast, Baby.

On the set of this picture, I was at the bottom of the food chain. The lowest of the low. I mean even lower than the screenwriter. But there must have been something about me. Maybe because we’re the same age. Well, I’m ten years older, but you know. It was a chemistry we had, and I’m not just talking about the physical, though that was certainly there on my part. We had an understanding; we knew it the minute we looked in each other’s eyes. I’ll always remember how hers narrowed when she first looked at me. And her first words.

“Could you get me a cup of tea? Right away…?”

Soon we were inseparable. A gentleman doesn’t reveal the details, but there is one thing I want to talk about, and that was the night we watched a movie together. It was that new one about how Marilyn Monroe went to England back in the 1950s to make a film with Laurence Olivier. As an Academy member, Halle had a screener from Harvey Weinstein, and she insisted on watching it in bed. With me!

Who was I to refuse? So I climbed in with her.

“Watch my leg.”

“I can’t take my eyes off it.”

“And stop with the James Bond impression. It’s getting old.”

“Someone’s in a bad mood.”

She gave me that look I’d come to know so well. And then the movie began.

______________________________________________

So turns out it’s about this guy, Colin Clark, who wangled a job as an assistant to Olivier and then worked on The Prince and the Showgirl, a film version of a play Sir Laurence had done on stage. In it, the Showgirl was played by Marilyn Monroe, who had bought the property, and hired Olivier to co-star and direct. Here, Olivier is played by Kenneth Branagh and Monroe by Michelle Williams.

I’ve seen The Prince and the Showgirl, actually. The plot is very thin: it’s a little one-situation comedy about a middle-European prince who invites a showgirl up to his chambers with the intention of seducing her, and how she thaws him out through a combination of innocence and (one is led to assume) very hot sex. Olivier plays it with a monocle and a Dracula accent, very stiff and formal, and no humor whatsoever. Monroe looks fantastic, maybe the best she ever looked, and she’s very charming. But they don’t get any chemistry going. Partly because the film is so trivial and empty (the best thing about it is the original poster, which shows Olivier pinning a ribbon on Monroe’s barely-there dress, and the words “Some countries have a medal for everything!”). Partly too it’s the difference in their acting styles: his all cold surface detail and polish; hers warm, spontaneous and messy.

The new movie gets a lot of comedy, in fact most of its comedy, out of this clash. The movie’s Olivier is arrogant, egomaniacal and rude — Monroe thwarts and frustrates him at every turn, and he’s driven half mad by her lateness, her poor memory, her retinue of coaches and enablers. What finally drives him over the brink is his realization that despite her lack of formal acting training, she wipes him off the screen when they’re on it together. (This isn’t really accurate; they both come across vividly in The Prince and the Showgirl, but the film is like a gleaming gold-plated serving dish with a mackerel and a marshmallow sitting on it.) Branagh makes a very funny Olivier, biting down on every last syllable and modulating his voice from a whisper to a roar. He takes many of the Great Man’s mannerisms and gives them a campy spin, for example rolling his eyes toward heaven in supplication, then lowering them suddenly and pursing his lips. He portrays Olivier and sends him up at the same time, and he’s the best thing in the movie.

Michelle Williams is not so juicy. She does an effective, almost eerie job of evoking Monroe, both the wide-eyed mock-innocent dumbbell and the pouting, soulful little-girl-lost. But it’s all evocation. Marilyn Monroe was ferociously, incandescently alive on the screen. It’s not just that Williams doesn’t have Monroe’s looks or her amazing body. She doesn’t have her feral quality, the intense aggressive sexuality that flashes out in moments that are still startling to watch. Like Elvis Presley, Monroe was an extraordinary personality who bypassed traditional notions of “acting.” At her best, as with Olivier, she made conventional acting look stilted and contrived, but at her worst (usually in drama), with no real technique or training to draw on, she could be repetitive, self-involved, and amateurish. Williams is just the opposite — she’s all brains and technique, but no fire. It’s an Indie performance, small and readable and finely wrought. But this is a movie about giants (it also includes portraits of Vivien Leigh, Arthur Miller, Sybil Thorndike) and you can’t help noticing there are no giants around to play them.

In any case, the main character isn’t really Monroe, or Olivier. Like I said, it’s about this guy Colin Clark. The movie is supposedly based on his true story, as recounted in his published diary and in his book The Prince, the Showgirl, and Me. In Clark’s account, as a fresh-faced 24 year old, he was the only one on the set Monroe could relate to, and after her new husband Miller deserted her to return to America, she turned to Clark for comfort. The only person with no agenda, it seems (though he later went on to write two books and sell them to the movies). The central part of the movie is about Colin and Marilyn’s very special week, after they sneak away from the set to go frolicking around the English countryside. They walk aimlessly through a park, they go skinny dipping, she’s turned on by his innocence, and they share a kiss. If this seems like a particularly puerile fantasy involving borrowed bits of The Misfits, Something’s Got to Give and Bus Stop, that’s because it is. You get tired of watching Eddie Redmayne’s Colin stare wonderingly at Monroe, wet eyed and open mouthed, or for variety, the other way around. She opens herself up to him and reveals her hurts, her fears and insecurities, and they fall for each other, sort of. Alas, she has to go back to being Marilyn Monroe and he has to go back to being…well, who cares, really? All they had was their one magical time together, but it’s a time that changed them both. In fact, the movie is named for it: My Week with Marilyn.

What a coincidence, right? Especially considering who I watched it with! When it was over, Halle shifted discontentedly under the covers.

“This thing is unbelievable.”

“Why thank you.”

“Cut it out, Mr. Bond. I was talking about the movie. Harvey may manage to snag Michelle an Oscar, but I don’t buy a word of it.”

She saw my expression, and gave me one of her enigmatic smiles. Then she put her face close. The eternal temptress.

“Could you go for some popcorn?”

“Great idea, I’m starving!”

“No, seriously, I can’t get out of bed. Go get me some popcorn. Now.”

It was a long week we had together, Halle and me. But I will never, ever forget it.