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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 delightfully.

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 extraordinary.

*

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, happier choice.

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 "judgmental."

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 Republicans.

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 her lies.

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 revealed.

Meanwhile, though, the Republicans simply do not have a viable candidate right now.

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.


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