Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
July 16, 2006
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Prada, Hustle, Astors, Hotels, and Hillary
There are actors that I just don't enjoy much on the screen. Which says
nothing about them or me, except that I don't enjoy their style of acting. For
instance, Bill Murray never amused me on Saturday Night Live. He always
struck me as a smart guy acting oafish in order to make fun of oafs.
But that didn't stop me from being a devoted fan of Groundhog Day, because in
that film Murray got to play a character who exactly fit the character Murray
brings to all his roles. In fact, I enjoyed his performance so much that I forgave
the fact that it's a romantic comedy about falling in love with the wooden Andie
MacDowell who was not, alas, playing a character that well suited her.
But there is no actor who has annoyed me so much as Meryl Streep. Not
because she's the worst actor in Hollywood -- far from it. It's because she is
treated with so much fawning and (in my view) undeserved respect, being
praised for the very things that she does least competently.
I didn't think it was possible that I would look forward to watching Meryl
Streep in a movie. But then the promos came out for The Devil Wears Prada,
and I recognized immediately that the role of Miranda Priestly was for her what
Phil Connors in Groundhog Day was for Murray: The perfect role for her
virtues, unmarred by her weaknesses. I knew I would watch this movie.
It was certainly not for Anne Hathaway, who plays the putative leading role of
Andy Sachs, a talented young writer straight out of college who comes for an
interview at Priestly's Vogue-like magazine, completely unprepared for a
fashion-centered culture like the one that prevailed there. Hathaway had been
so praised for her physical comedy in Princess Diaries (at which she was, I
thought, merely adequate) that she has been misused by directors ever since,
as in the dreadful Ella Enchanted.
Well, guess what. Hathaway has finally been given a decent role in which she
is allowed to act, and she does well. Isn't it unfortunate that it should happen
in the shadow -- or, rather, in the blinding glare -- of the brilliant performance
Streep renders as Miranda Priestly.
I have never seen an actress give so unnatural and calculated a performance --
but since Streep is playing an unnatural and calculated character, that
performance is exquisitely right. No bad, overdone accents here. She has
found her metier and by the end of the movie, quite contrary to all
expectations, the audience -- I -- was completely devoted to the character.
The vicissitudes of young Andy Sachs's life are quite entertaining -- Aline
Brosh McKenna's adaptation of Lauren Weisberger's novel is deftly done. The
script sizzles, and director David Frankel never pushes too hard, leaving subtle
things to be discovered rather than forced on the audience.
And her two love interests are well performed by the too-good-looking Adrian
Grenier and the just-cynical-enough Simon Baker.
But the movie is nearly stolen by Emily Blunt as Andy's witchy but fragile co-worker and is, in fact, owned whenever he's on screen by Stanley Tucci in his
finest role so far, as a man whose life and dreams are endlessly on hold for a
boss who regards that life and those dreams as coins she can spend at will.
Apparently I loved this film. I couldn't get it out of my mind. Movies like this
are what I love -- romantic comedy, yes, but well woven into the fabric of a
powerful and wise satiric view of human community. That the fashion world is
a loathsome nightmare I already took for granted. That there is also a kind of
nobility in Priestly's obsessive devotion to empty peacockery was the surprise,
and Tucci's speech about how Andy, who thinks she ignores fashion, is in fact
a slave to it without knowing it, was brilliantly written and brilliantly delivered.
From beginning to end, the movie is funny and fascinating and real. And
Streep rules it like a particularly nasty goddess.
In a summer dominated by inadequate action sequels and wan little animated
features, what a delight that the rulers of Hollywood deigned to give us a great
movie for grownups.
It's running right now on AMC of all places -- a delightful British TV series
about con men, called Hustle. Forty years after The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (and
fifty-one years after his TV career began in 1955), Robert Vaughn, at 74, finds
himself as part of a brilliant ensemble that each week sets up a caper and, just
when it seems everything has gone wrong, pulls their irons out of the fire most
There's a limit to what you can bring off in an hour and on a BBC budget, but
within those limits they do an extraordinary job. So even though I've seen
almost no promotion of this series, I urge you who have American Movie
Classics as part of your cable package to seek this one out. The greatest
delight is that Robert Vaughn is far from being the most charismatic actor in
the cast -- though I've seen few of them in other films, they are all quite
Justin Kaplan's lite history book When the Astors Owned New York: Blue
Bloods and Grand Hotels in a Gilded Age, is a weird sort of hybrid. While
Kaplan fulfills his promise of telling the story of the Astor family, it is far from a
detailed biography of any of them. In fact, what it really seems to be is a
history of the luxury hotel in America -- you know, where the radical idea of
putting private bathrooms in every guest room was born.
But then, I'd probably never have read a history of luxury hotels, and I doubt I
would have given a thick biography of the Astors the same kind of attention I
gave to William Manchester's brilliant treatment of the Krupps of Germany
back when I was a teenager (see The Arms of Krupp).
So this brief hybrid -- only 181 pages -- is exactly what both subjects
deserved, for nonspecialists like me. In quite readable prose, Kaplan tells the
story of a family that bought up Manhattan real estate back when the Indians
had been so recently cheated and the Dutch so recently dispossessed that you
could become the equivalent (in today's money) of a billionaire by simply sitting
on your land.
To my surprise, though, the most fascinating part of the book is the story of
the rivalry between two Astor brothers and their sons -- cousins who were both
prisoners of their money but tried, as best they could, to make something
useful of their lives. They aren't really tragic figures; but they aren't ridiculous,
either. I know it's silly to feel sorry for the hyper-rich, but vast money can
make it almost as hard to lead a normal (and happy) life as deep poverty -- but
with a lot more publicity.
One can't help but wonder if the Astor offspring who got himself disinherited by
marrying an ordinary farmer's daughter didn't end up making the wiser,
Meanwhile, it was cool to see the roots of modern hotels and to see how, at
their inception, these places occupied a central place in American life,
mattering in a way that hotels never matter anymore. Today you walk into a
Marriott or a Hyatt looking for a decent room with a good bed and internet
access. In those days, you used the hotel as an extension of your social life.
Or, for many, as the beginning of it. If you could afford to stay at the Astor
House or the Waldorf-Astoria, it meant you had arrived.
It can't be considered much worse than appearing on, say, Jerry Springer or
even Dr. Phil as a means of gaining status.
I don't think I personally know another living soul who would be interested in
George F. Hourani's history book, Arab Seafaring. But since the copy I read
was an "expanded edition," apparently there are other people who brighten up
at discovering a well-written, exhaustive treatment of obscure but important
aspects of history.
I always thought of Arabs as the marauding hordes who burst out of Arabia
and crushed half of Christendom, all of Persia before being halted -- barely --
before conquering Europe in its entirety. It's easy to forget that they weren't all
camel-riding bedouins -- that they were more often town dwellers and
merchant traders, and when they got the chance, they took to the sea to make
money and, oh yes, spread Islam to the coasts of Africa and Asia and beyond.
What, exactly, does it mean when someone says, "My, but you're opinionated."
Or "Well, we aren't opinionated, are we?"
What does it mean to be opinionated? Well, presumably, it means that you
have opinions and you say them.
But if to be opinionated is something to be discouraged (and the word is always
used disparagingly), what is the virtuous alternative? To have no opinions? Or
perhaps merely to refrain from saying them?
I believe that "opinionated" is used precisely the way that "judgmental" is used
-- in an attempt to make someone embarrassed to state their views, thereby
silencing them without having to resort to actually answering any of their views
or offering contrary evidence or reasoning.
In other words, both words are simply a way to be rude to someone else
without facing the social consequences. If you disagree with their opinions,
then offer alternative views; or if you don't want to argue, then disagree in
silence. But don't tell them to shut up. Or if you do, at least admit that's what
you're doing instead of dressing it up in words like "opinionated" and
And for those who read this column and are shocked -- nay, horrified! -- to
discover that I actually put my opinions here, please look again at the title. I
write a review column. Review columns consist of the opinions of the reviewer.
I'm the reviewer. I write my opinions here. I don't have any obligation to write
your opinions here. So I'm baffled at the number of people who say, "My, but
you're opinionated!" or, "You certainly are judgmental."
They never seem to notice that calling me opinionated is, in fact, an opinion;
and calling me judgmental is, in fact, a judgment.
It's safe to say that John Podhoretz is no fan of Hillary Clinton; her fans don't
write books entitled Can She Be Stopped?: Hillary Clinton Will Be the Next
President of the United States Unless ...
But, oddly enough, this is not really a Hillary-bashing book.
Of course the book gives warning that the very media who are outraged at
Bush's lies-that-are-not-lies give Hillary a complete pass for taking bribes
through cattle-futures scams, thumbing her nose at Congress by pretending to
have misplaced subpoenaed files, and now lying every single day by pretending
to be a pro-Iraq-War moderate.
Hillary's supporters are counting on her being a liar. If they really thought she
was the moderate she pretends to be right now, they'd never vote for her.
The trouble is, telling lies works -- especially these days, when the lies of
leftists are ignored by the press. Despite Hillary's high negative numbers,
Podhoretz makes the case for her being the frontrunner for the Democratic
nomination. And if somebody gets the nomination of a major party, there's
always the chance that through some fluke -- or deft election stealing, as was
attempted by the Democrats in Florida in 2000 -- they might end up in control
of American defense.
And Hillary Clinton is as dedicated an enemy to a strong American military as
you could hope to find.
So Podhoretz is alarmed, particularly because all the Republicans have to do,
to ensure the election of whatever Democrat gets the nomination is: act like
In fact, if you look at recent history, it seems almost a miracle that the Bush
family came along to save the Republican Party from its death wish. It was
only the Ayatollah Khomeini combined with the media's contempt for Carter
that allowed Ronald Reagan to be elected in 1980; since then, only the
moderate Bushes -- both mistrusted or flat-out detested by the die-hard right
wing because they are so moderate -- have been able to squeak the Republican
Party through to victory.
And when you think about some of the Republican candidates who have been
taken seriously in the past -- Steve Forbes? Ouch -- you have to be grateful.
Since both parties are dominated by tunnel-visioned extremists who believe
themselves to be the sole possessors of wisdom and virtue, it's a miracle when
a moderate gets nominated.
But notice, please: Whichever party nominated the candidate perceived by the
public as the most sensible and moderate is the one who wins. Clinton, of
course, was a promise-breaker and a bit of a clown, but he managed to get the
Democratic nomination and win. After him, though, the Democrats nominated
the wacko Al Gore and the stiff elitist social-climber John Kerry, and the
American people saw through them -- or at least they did in enough of the
right states to keep them out of office.
But Hillary is trying to bring off the same run-for-the-middle coup as her
husband, the difference being that he was never an ideologue, and she has
never been anything but. Still, the American people may actually swallow it
this time, since the media establishment is perfectly happy to play along with
So there are only two ways we can avoid having the disaster of a Hillary Clinton
presidency: For the Democrats not to nominate her, or for the Republicans to
nominate somebody who will attract more votes.
The problem is that the Democrats learned all the wrong lessons from 1980,
when they turned down Mr. High-negatives, Ted Kennedy, in his bid to nab the
nomination away from sitting-president Jimmy Carter. Since Carter went
ahead and lost to -- gasp! -- Reagan, this time they may decide to ignore
Hillary's high negatives and nominate her anyway.
After all, the Democrats became so committed to defending Bill Clinton despite
his absurd record and embarrassing behavior that they still regard the 90s as a
kind of golden age, which they can surely recover by electing Bill's missus.
What they forget is that it was Clinton who ushered in the era of Republican
domination of Congress. And I have little doubt that after the first two years of
a Hillary administration, Republicans would have a veto-proof majority in both
houses as America recoiled from a Hillary whose claws would be by then
Meanwhile, though, the Republicans simply do not have a viable candidate
It's not that the Republican Party lacks potential candidates who could make
excellent presidents. I can think of three without even trying. The trouble is,
are any of them electable, in the face of a relentlessly pro-Hillary, anti-Republican media establishment?
Jeb Bush? No ... the media have done their job of discrediting the Bush name;
besides, while Hillary's bribe-taking is forgotten by the media, Mrs. Jeb's
attempt to bring undeclared goods into the United States would not be ignored
for a second. Jeb may be president someday, but there'll have to be a really
irritating Democrat in between his brother and him.
Rudolph Giuliani? In today's climate, where being anti-abortion is no longer
the bete noir that it once was and the numbers are flowing the other way, it
seems inconceivable to me that the Republican Party would nominate a pro-abortion candidate, period. I suspect Giuliani's career hit its apex in the
aftermath of 9/11; he will not have the nomination of a major party.
Mitt Romney? His credentials as a moral conservative and an economic
moderate are stellar, and his ability to get votes in Democrat-dominated states
makes him the obvious front-runner -- except for this tiny problem of his being
Mormon. After many years of anti-Mormon propaganda at a mouth-frothing
level, the religious right is hardly likely to get behind a Mormon candidate, and
any Republican who doesn't have the religious right behind him is unlikely to
get the kind of energized support that gets out the vote in swing states. But it's
all moot -- he ain't gettin' the nomination. The religious right would rather
support Giuliani first.
So ... who?
Well, Podhoretz has his ideas, and they make fascinating reading. Even if you
actually want Hillary to win, you still owe it to yourself to hear what one of the
Smart Guys of the Right is saying as he lays out his plans for world domination
political survival for the Republican Party.
Me, I just want one of the parties to nominate somebody who will take care of
American defenses, protect us from the depredations of the free-market
fanatics, and maybe, just maybe, help block the federal courts from destroying
the core institutions of a civilized society.
OK, so that's why I'm only a fiction writer and Podhoretz is taken seriously.
Meanwhile, I just wish somebody would write the book for Democrats, telling
them how to avoid the shame of nominating Hillary Clinton in the first place.
Oh, she might win -- but the political "triumph" would be a historical disaster.
Because, unlike her husband, she might actually keep her thinly-veiled
promises to the fanatical Left.