Book Review: The 103rd Ballot by Robert K. Murray

Cinematically, the 1968 Democrat Convention has been done to death.

There have been a lot of movies made about the 1968 Democrat Convention and certainly, I can understand why.  Not only did you have an epic battle taking place in the Convention Hall between the Democrat establishment and the reformers but there were also riots in the streets.  The police were beating up protestors and slogans were being chanted and Haskell Wexler was filming footage for Medium Cool.  Yes, it was all very cinematic but again, it’s just been done to death.  We don’t need another movie about what happened in 1968.

Instead, what is needed is a movie about the 1924 Democrat Convention, which was held in Madison Square Garden and which lasted for two and a half weeks because none of the men running for President could get enough votes.  The two major candidates were Al Smith of New York and William McAdoo of California.  Smith was an anti-prohibitionist and was seeking to become the first Catholic to be nominated by a major political party.  McAdoo was the son-in-law of America’s greatest monster, Woodrow Wilson.  Smith’s campaign was managed by a young Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was making a political comeback after being previously struck down by polio.  Though he was not himself a member and had no use for the organization, McAdoo found himslef being supported by the Ku Klux Klan, who was then at the height of its political influence and which opposed Smith because of his Catholicism.

With neither Smith nor McAdoo able to command a majority of the delegates, other “favorite son” candidates emerged.  U.S. Sen. Oscar Underwood of Alabama, a longtime opponent of Klan, was not only nominated but also fought a heroic but losing battle to insert a plank condemning the Klan into the Democrat platform.  West Virginia’s John W. Davis was nominated, as was Kansas’s Jonathan M. Davis.  Meanwhile, in the wings, William Jennings Bryan managed the presidential campaign of his brother, Charles, and waited to see if the Convention would perhaps turn to him and put him on the national ticket for a record fourth time.  (Little did Bryan know, of course, that the Scopes Monkey Trial was waiting for him, right around the corner….)

In the end, 58 men received votes for the presidential nomination at the 1924 Democrat Convention.  It took a record 103 ballots for the party to finally nominate a candidate who, after all of that, would still have to run against the enormously popular incumbent, Calvin Coolidge.  Along the way, there were fist fights, political chicanery,  and many accusations of lies, bad faith, and prejudice.  FDR re-launcher his career with his pro-Smith speech but, in doing so, he also inspired the jealousy that would lead to Al Smith becoming one of the leading opponents of the New Deal.  Meanwhile, the aging William Jennings Bryan struggled to control a party that no longer had much use for him.

It’s a fascinating story, and one that I know about because I read a book called The 103rd Ballot, which tells the story of not only the convention but also the election that followed it.  The book was written by Robert K. Murray and it was originally published in 1976.  It’s been around for a while but the issues that it deals with and the politicians that are profiled all feel very familiar.  Today, control of the major political parties is still being fought over by the activist who do the work and the politicians who reap the rewards.  Extremism is still a threat.  Just as the Democrats did in 1924, Americans are still trying to figure out what the country’s role in the world should be.  As described by Robert K. Murray, historic figures like FDR, Al Smith, McAdoo, Calving Coolidge, and John W. Davis all come to life.  Their motivations are often petty but their actions change the course of history.

The next presidential election is going to be the 100-year anniversary of the 1924 debacle and the issues that made that convention so chaotic are the same issues that political types are still dealing with today.  In 1924, America was recovering for a war and a pandemic.  In 2024 …. well, you get the idea.  The main difference, of course, is that we now have air conditioning.  At the 1924 convention, air conditioning was still a relatively new concept and the delegates spent two and a half-weeks jammed into Madison Square Garden in the summer.  Agck!

So, seriously, some aspiring Aaron Sorkin (though not Sorkin himself, that’s the last thing we need) needs to buy the rights to this book and get to work on a movie or a miniseries about what happened in 1924.  I can’t wait to see who plays Al Smith!

Book Review: Shooting Midnight Cowboy: Art, Sex, Loneliness, Liberation, and the Making of a Dark Classic by Glenn Frankel

As you can probably guess from the title, Glenn Frankel’s Shooting Midnight Cowboy: Art, Sex, Loneliness, Liberation, and the Making of a Dark Classic is all about the making of one of the darkest films to ever win the Oscar for Best Picture, Midnight Cowboy.

Released in 1969 and based on a novel by James Leo Herlihy, Midnight Cowboy stars Jon Voight as Joe Buck.  Joe is a simple-minded but handsome man from a small-town in Texas.  After both he and his girlfriend are raped by some local rednecks, Joe puts on his cowboy hat, hops in a bus, and heads for New York City.  Joe figures that he can make a lot of money as a hustler but he soon discovers that New York is a far more dangerous, nightmarish, and depressing place than he ever realized.  Not only is he not smart enough to make it as a hustler but he’s not even the only cowboy hanging out around Times Square.  Eventually, Joe meets Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), who has a bad leg, a hacking cough, and the worst apartment in New York.  Joe and Rizzo become unlikely roommates and eventually, they even become friends.  (And depending on how you interpret certain scenes and lines of dialogue, they might even become more.)  Rizzo helps Joe to survive in New York but Rizzo himself is dying.  Not even a chance to hang out with a group of Warhol superstars can cure Rizzo of what ails him.  Rizzo wants to see Florida and Joe wants to get out of New York.  How far will Joe go to escape and save his only friend?

Midnight Cowboy was controversial when it was first released, with some critics calling it a masterpiece and other claiming that the film was a symbol of America’s cultural and moral decay.  It went on to become the first and only X-rated film to win Best Picture.  Midnight Cowboy‘s victory over films like Hello Dolly! and Anne of the Thousand Days was seen as a sign that mature and adult-themed films could actually find both acclaim and an audience.  Midnight Cowboy‘s success helped to bring Hollywood into the modern era.  For many, it was also responsible for establishing New York as being the dirty and heartless city that would appear in so many of the films that followed.  Indeed, there’s many different lessons that one can take from Midnight Cowboy but the main one seems to be that everyone should stay the heck out of New York.  Seen today, Midnight Cowboy is no longer all that shocking and director John Schlesinger occasionally seems to be trying too hard to establish his auteur credentials.  But the film’s story still remains effective, as do the lead performances of Hoffman and Voight.  Though being very much a film of its time, Midnight Cowboy is still watchable today.  It’s not only an effective film but it’s also a milestone in Hollywood history.

As for Shooting Midnight Cowboy, it tells you pretty much everything you need to know about both the film and the controversy that has surrounded it over the years.  Starting with the novel that was written by James Leo Herlihy, Shooting Midnight Cowboy meticulously follows the production of the film, exploring not only how both Voight and Hoffman came to star in the film but also how these two very competitive actors came together to create an unforgettable portrait of an unlikely friendship.  It also explores everything from director John Schlesinger’s efforts to bring his vision to life to the concerns that mainstream audiences would refuse to see the film because of its adult context to the writing of the film’s famous theme song, Everybody’s Talkin’.  Perhaps the most harrowing chapter deals with the ordeal that Jennifer Salt suffered through while playing the small role of Joe Buck’s Texas girlfriend, Annie.  Shooting Midnight Cowboy puts the movie into its proper historical and cultural context, showing how the film commented on the issues of the time while also telling a story that remains effective even when viewed outside of the 60s.  It makes for an interesting and informative read, for both the film lover and the cultural historian.

Novel Review: Oath of Office by Steven J. Kirsch

Last week, I returned to exploring my aunt’s old collection of paperback books and I read Oath of Office, a political thriller that was originally published way back in 1988.

U.S. Sen. Jonathan Starr has just been elected to the presidency of the United States of America.  As the first Jewish person to win the presidency, Starr is set to make history as soon as he’s sworn in.  However, there’s a problem.  Starr’s been kidnapped!  The morning after his upset victory, Starr finds himself in the trunk of a car and later confined to a cell.  With no knowledge of who has kidnapped him or what his ultimate fate is going to be, Starr can only wait and have numerous flashbacks to the events that led to him winning the presidency.

Meanwhile, the man that Starr defeated, President Sutherland, is trying to figure out who is behind the kidnapping.  Was Starr abducted by the Russians?  Or perhaps the kidnapping is the work of one of the Middle Eastern terrorist groups who is trying to thwart Sutherland’s efforts to bring peace to region?  Maybe it’s the senator from Texas whose dialogue consists of stuff like, “Ah’ve been workin’ on this deal …. we’ll git it through befo’ the election.”  (That’s an actual quote from the book, by the way.  It seems like it would have been simpler just to say that the man had an accent but some writers just have to be cute about things.)  There’s a lot of possibilities but we know that Starr’s kidnapping was masterminded by an imprisoned mobster, largely because the book tells us early on.  I personally would have dragged out the suspense but no matter!

While secret service agent Andy Reynolds is trying to track Starr down, the Speaker of the House is plotting to take power for himself.  He and his people have come across what they believe to be a loophole in the Constitution, which will keep the electoral college from being able to vote for either Starr or his running mate.  In which case, the Speaker will automatically become president as soon as the incumbent’s term expires.  So, yes, this is another political thriller where the plot largely hinges on a reading of the Constitution that any halfway experienced attorney would easily be able to shoot down.

As you can probably guess, this book has its flaws.  According to the blurb on the back, this was the author’s first novel and I have no idea if he ever wrote a second one.  There are a lot of points in the story that don’t ring true, especially in the flashbacks to Starr’s early political career and the author has a bad habit of telling us things as opposed to showing them.  And, of course, there’s that terrible attempt to capture the Texas accent.  Don’t even get me started on that. 

That said, the idea behind the book is an interesting one.  Only two people of Jewish descent have ever been nominated by a major political party.  Barry Goldwater was an Episcopalian while Joseph Liebermann found himself being opposed by the anti-Semites in his own party.  Of course, neither one of those men made it to the White House.  Oath of Office does make an attempt to seriously consider the challenges that would face the first Jewish president and it’s also honest about how anti-Semitism is a prejudice that is often overlooked by even those who brag about their progressive credentials.  As I said, the book has an interesting idea but the plot just keeps getting in the way.

Novel Review: Scarface by Armitage Trail

First published in 1930, Scarface tells the story of Tony Guarino.  Tony was an 18 year-old hoodlum, working his way through the Chicago rackets.  Unfortunately, for Tony, he started to draw too much attention from the cops and his gangster boss told Tony to stop hanging around so much.  Miffed, Tony decided to join the Army.

Tony served with a valor in World War I.  He was natural leader and had no hesitation when it came to killing people.  He was “a good soldier,” as the novel puts it.  When he’s wounded in battle, he’s left with a facial scar that changes his appearance to the extent that even his own family doesn’t recognize him when he returns to Chicago.  Of course, due to a clerical mistake, they also think that Tony’s dead.  After killing his former mistress and her new lover, Tony somewhat randomly decides to change his name to Tony Camonte and take over the Chicago underworld.

He gets a job working for Johnny Love.  Scarface Tony, as he is called now, works his way up.  Soon, Tony is in charge of the Lovo mob and he even has a girlfriend, a former “gun girl” named Jane.  Unfortunately, Tony also has a lot of enemies.  Captain Flanagan may take Tony’s money but he still wants to put Tony behind bars.  The DA may take Tony’s money but he still wants to put Tony behind bars.  The cops way take Tony’s money but …. well, okay, you get the idea.  Tony can’t trust anyone.  Complicating things is that his older brother is moving his way up in the police force and his younger sister has been hanging out with Tony’s main gunman.  And there’s a new gang boss in town.  His nickname is Schemer.  You know he has to be bad with a nickname like that!

I read Scarface yesterday.  It’s only 181 pages long and it’s a quick read.  It’s also not a particularly well-written book.  The prose is often clunky.  The dialogue is awkward.  Tony really doesn’t have any motivation beyond the fact that he’s a jerk.  We’re continually told that Tony has become one of the most powerful gangsters in the country but we don’t really see any evidence of it.  One of the basic rules is that it’s better to show than to tell and this novel is all about telling instead of showing.  What there is of a plot feels like it was made up on the spot.  For instance, with the exception of an off-hand mention of her in the first chapter, the character of Tony’s sister doesn’t even figure into the story until it is nearly done and, yet, the story’s conclusion pretty much hinges on her existence.  Though not as well-written, Scarface is still a bit like The Epic of Gilgamesh.  Writer Armitage Trail just kept coming up with complications until he finally ran out of tablets and had no choice but to abruptly end things.

That said, the book is notable in that it served as the inspiration for Howard Hawks’s 1932 film, Scarface.  The Hawks film, which only loosely follows the plot of Trail’s book and which wisely abandons some of the less credible plot points, would later be remade by Brian De Palma, with Al Pacino stepping into the role of Tony.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Novel Review: 1988 by Richard D. Lamm and Arnold Grossman

From my aunt’s paperback collection, comes 1988!

1988 is a novel about the 1988 Presidential election. It was published in 1986 so, when it first came out, it was meant to be a look at a possible future. But read today, it’s more like a work of alternate history. What if, the book asks, the 1988 election had been disrupted by a third party candidate?

That candidate is Stephen Wendell, who is the governor of Texas. You can tell that this book was written a long time ago because Wendell is described as being a Democratic governor of Texas. There hasn’t been a Democrat elected statewide in Texas for a while and that’s probably not going to change anytime soon. (Sorry, Beto, but it’s true.) Wendell is also a conservative Democrat, which is yet another reminder that we’re dealing with an old book. With neither the Republican nor the Democratic candidate exciting the country, Wendell sees an opening for his populist, anti-immigration message.

Jerry Bloom is a former 60s radical who now works as a campaign consultant. At first, he resists Wendell’s attempts to hire him but Bloom finally gives in. Some of it is because Wendell seems to be more reasonable than Bloom originally assumed. A lot of it is because Bloom wants the challenge. As a result of Bloom’s hard-hitting and frequently viscous commercials, Wendell starts to rise up in the polls.

Bloom’s conscience is bothered, however. He used to believe in stuff but now he finds himself as just a political mercenary, turning the country against itself. Plus, Bloom comes across evidence that there’s a secret conspiracy behind Wendell’s campaign, one that could put the future of the Republic at stake!

1988 is an okay political thriller. The plot isn’t particularly surprising and you’ll figure out what’s going on long before Bloom does but, for the most part, it’s a well-written book and Jerry Bloom is an interesting character. I do think that the book overestimates that power of Bloom’s commercials. For the most part, they sound like the type of stuff that The Lincoln Project posted throughout 2020, commercials that would speak to the already converted while turning off the undecided voters. Bloom’s commercials sound like they would be popular with Wendell’s base but they don’t sound like the sort of thing that would make him a potential president.

The book also makes the mistake of including a character named Harrison Chase, who I guess is supposed to be some sort of Edward R. Murrow type. He gives commentaries on the evening news and 1988 devotes page after page to Harrison Chase bitching about the election. Most of the commentaries come across as being pompous and self-important, which might be the most realistic part of the book. But it still doesn’t make them particularly interesting to read. They slow down the action and they also contribute to the book ending on an annoying ambiguous note.

Political junkies will enjoy counting up all of the real-life politicians who are mentioned in the book. (Joe Biden gets a shout-out because he’s been around forever.) Some may also find it interesting that one of the book’s co-authors was governor of Colorado at the time that he wrote the book. One has to wonder how much of that experience contributed to the book’s portrait of the electorate as being easily led and intellectually vapid.

1988 is okay. It goes a little heavy on the “political consultants are bad” angle. It’s not a bad message but it’s hardly a revolutionary. Still, it’s always interesting to read older political books and see how much things have changed and also how much they’ve remained the same.

Book Review: Alright, Alright, Alright: The Oral History Of Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused by Melissa Maerz

There are a lot of different ways that I could praise this 2020 book about the 1993 high school film, Dazed and Confused.

I could point out that it is the definitive history about the making of one of my favorite films, told by the people who were there.

I could point out that it’s a book that captures a very important time in the development of modern independent film.

I could point out that anyone who is a fan of Richard Linklater should read this book to discover the struggles that Linklater went through while directing his second feature film.  Linklater learned a lot during the filming.  He’s also an endlessly fascinating interview subject, a filmmaker who has figured out how to balance the needs of art with the needs of commerce.

If you’re a Texan, you definitely have to read this book because Dazed and Confused is a part of our culture.

I would also point out that this book is about more than just went on while the movie was being shot.  It’s also about how the movie effected and continued to effect the lives of the people who were in it and who have seen it..  Some cast members, like Matthew McConaughey, Ben Affleck, Parker Posey, and Renee Zellweger (even though she’s only visible for a second and isn’t actually credited in the film), became big stars.  Others, like Anthony Rapp and Adam Goldberg and Nick Katt, have emerged as strong characer actors, the type of people who you love to see in any movie.  Others had a bit less success and most of them do not hold back on discussing why stardom did or did not come calling.

Featuring interviews with just about everyone who was involved in the film, Alright Alright Alright begins with Richard Linklater finding arthouse success with Slacker and then moving on to Dazed and Confused.  As many people in the book point out, Linklater’s first few films helped to define both Austin and the entire Texas film scene.  At a time when most Texas films were about cowboys and oilman, Linklater revealed that there was a lot more going on.  And yet, when Linklater went on to find his own quirky brand of mainstream success, many of his former colleagues in Austin felt left behind.  Linklater acknowledges their feelings while also making no apologies for not spending the rest of his life remaking Slacker.

The full production of Dazed and Confused, from casting to the film’s release, is covered.  We learn about some of the people who tried out for the film but, ultimately, weren’t cast.  (Linklater seems to feel almost guilty for not casting Vince Vaughn in a role.)  We learn how Matthew McConaughey almost randomly found his way into the cast and then subsequently transformed Wooderson from being a minor character into being the heart of the film.  We follow Wiley Wiggins as he comes of age on the film set.  Just about everyone is interviewed and no one holds back.  It was a frequently wild set, with a young cast who, to a certain extent, recreated high school while the film was being shot.  I was sad to learn that Michelle Burke did not get along with Parker Posey and Joey Lauren Adams.  I was happier to read that Jason London was apparently as cool off-camera as he was when he was playing Randall “Pink” Floyd.  And, considering the way that his character just vanished from the film, I have to say that I wasn’t surprised to discover that no one seemed to get along with Shawn Andrews.

Shawn Andrews, of course, played Kevin Pickford.  Pickford was originally meant to be an almost shamanistic character, though the concept of the character started to change once filming actually started.  (“There’s a reason we called him Prickford,” Rory Cochrane says, at one point.)  Two chapters are devoted to everyone in the cast taking about how much they disliked working with Shawn Andrews.  No one really seems to hold back, which I have to admit almost made me feel sorry for the guy.  Like many young actors, he went a bit too far trying to be method.  Nick Katt compared him to Jared Leto at his worst.  The otherwise easy-going Jason London talks about nearly getting into a fistfight with him.  Linklater attempts to be diplomatic while discussing what happened but even he admits that Andrews didn’t gel with his vision for the film.  Pickford was originally meant to be a major character.  He was meant to be on the football field with Randall and Dawson.  He was also originally meant to be the one heading out to get Aerosmith tickets.  However, with more and more actors basically refusing to deal with the actor who was playing him, Pickford was replaced in scene after scene by Matthew McConaughey’s Wooderson.  (Andrews, apparently, felt that Pickford should die in a dramatic car accident towards the end of the film.)  Perhaps not surprisingly, Andrews was one of the few actors to decline to be interviewed for the book.

The final few chapters of the book are a bit sad, as some members of the cast discuss their careers after Dazed and Confused.  We read about a cast reunion that occurred in Austin that turned a bit awkward when the actors who had become big stars reunited with the actors who hadn’t.  Jason London, who dealt with a great personal tragedy shortly after the filming of Dazed and Confused, talks about the experience with a wistfulness sadness that is actually a bit heart-breaking.  One gets the feeling that London’s mixed feeling weren’t so much about not becoming a Matthew McConaughey or Ben Affleck-style star as much as they were an acknowledgement that the past is the past.  The unstated theme running through the book is that, as good a time as everyone had while making Dazed and Confused, everyone’s older now and that moment can never be recaptured.

(Kind of like high school!)

The book does end with some speculation about a Dazed and Confused sequel.  Linklater seems to have given it some thought, though he also says that it will never happen.  Personally, I think that’s the right decision.  Dazed and Confused is perfect as it is.  Alright, Alright, Alright is the book that helps us to understand why that is.

Novel Review: The Prodigal Daughter by Jeffrey Archer

First published in 1982, Jeffrey Archer’s The Prodigal Daughter is one of the many paperback novels that I recently inherited from my aunt.  It’s 485 pages long but, as I discovered earlier this week, it’s a quick read.  I got through it in a day and a half.

It tells the story of Floratyna Rosnovski, the daughter of Abel Rosnovski, a Polish immigrant who worked his way up from poverty and now owns a chain of luxury hotels.  Abel is enemies with William Kane, a WASP banker from a wealthy family.  Why are Kane and Abel enemies?  Well, it probably has something to do with the fact that they have ironic names.  Obviously, if your name is Abel, you’re going to mistrust anyone named Kane.  Beyond that, The Prodigal Daughter is a sequel to an earlier Archer novel called Kane and Abel.  I assume that Kane and Abel goes into more detail about the rivalry between the two men but all that really needs to be known, as far as The Prodigal Daughter is concerned, is that they hate each other.

Unfortunately for Abel, Floratyna grows up to fall in love with Richard Kane, the son of William.  Rejected by her father, Floratyna marries Richard and together, they make their own fortune by opening up a chain of stores.  Along the way, Floratyna is approached by a childhood friend named Edward.  Edward, who is obviously in love with Floratyna, recruits her to run for the U.S. House of Representatives.  At first, Floratyna struggles in Washington but soon, she wins the respect of her colleauges and learns to stop being such a leftist.  Eventually, she becomes a Senator and starts to look towards the White House.  But will a personal tragedy keep Floratyna from becoming the first woman to serve as President?

Reading The Prodigal Daughter, I found myself thinking about how Floratyna Kane lived an almost ludicrously charmed life.  Yes, there were some conflicts.  When she was a child, a group of her classmates made fun of her for being Polish.  She dated one jerk before she ended up with Richard.  Her wealthy father hates her husband but he still secretly helps them set up their chain of stores.  She deals with one great tragedy but she recovers from it after seeing a group of homeless veterans and realizing that at least she has a place to live.  Floratyna is a frustratingly passive character.  Her friend Edward finds her a safe congressional district to run in and essentially guides her political career.  Her subsequent success as a politician is largely the result of luck and coincidence.  The book even ends on a note of deus ex machina.  The book’s seems to suggest that the best way for a woman to become president is to passively wait for it to happen.  That’s not particularly empowering.

The Prodigal Daughter was written by Jeffrey Archer, a best-selling British author who was also a member of Parliament and who has a reputation for being a bit of a shady and disreputable character.  Archer’s prose is simple and rarely sings but, at times, his straight-forward approach to storytelling does pay off.  It makes for a quick read.  If nothing else, the book would seem to indicate that, early in his writing career, Archer understood that people with money are more fun to read about than people without.

Book Review: The War For Late Night by Bill Carter

Remember when Conan O’Brien was the host of The Tonight Show?

It occurred back in 2009, back when the Shattered Lens was just starting out.  After hosting the show for 17 years, Jay Leno stepped down as host of The Tonight Show.  Though he was never popular with critics and I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who actually made it a point to watch him, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno was the number one in the late night ratings.  David Letterman may have had more cultural cachet but Jay Leno was the host that most late night viewers were watching.  Other comedians may have mocked Leno for his safe and non-controversial hosting but, obviously, it worked.

When Leno first left The Tonight Show, no one was surprised by Leno’s retirement because he had announced it five years earlier.  In 2004, NBC renewed Leno’s contract as host with the condition that Leno would step down in 2009 and that Conan O’Brien would become the new host of the Tonight Show.  The fear was that, otherwise, Conan would switch to another network and compete directly against Leno.  At the time, Leno privately complained that he felt he was being fired but, publicly, he announced that he was happy to hand the show over to Conan in 2009.  In words that would come back to haunt him, Leno announced, “It’s yours, buddy!”

In 2009, Conan took over last night while Jay Leno got his own primetime talk show, which aired every weeknight.  It was an odd arrangement, one that was undertaken to keep Leno from going to another network.  (NBC was apparently very paranoid about its talent hopping to to other networks.)  Not only did NBC have to rearrange its schedule to make room for 5 days of Leno but many observers suspected that the whole thing was essentially some Machiavellian network scheme to eventually once again make Leno host of The Tonight Show while destroying Conan’s viability as a potential competitor.  Regardless of why NBC did what they did, it didn’t work out.  Leno’s primetime ratings quickly tanked.  So did that ratings for The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien.  O’Brien’s supporters said that Conan’s bad ratings were due to Jay being a bad lead-in.  Jay’s supporters said that Conan just wasn’t ready for the 11:30 slot and that Conan’s ratings had been going down for a while.  And while most television critics sided with Conan, NBC obviously sided with Jay, who had always been viewed as being a good and loyal company man.

NBC’s solution to the problem made about as much sense as any of their other actions.  It was announced that Jay would have a new late night show, a thirty-minute variety show that would air before The Tonight Show.  The Tonight Show would be bumped back by half-an-hour.  O’Brien objected to getting stuck with a later start time but it turned out that his contract gave NBC the right to move the show back by 30 minutes.  O’Brien resigned, writing an open letter to “the people of Earth,” in which he said that he would not take part in the “destruction” of The Tonight Show.  Depending on which side you were on, Conan was either being heroic or overdramatic.

How big was this story?  It was so big that even I knew about it, despite the fact that I didn’t watch any of the late night shows.  It was one of the first big cultural conflicts that I can remember blowing up on Twitter.  Twitter was almost 100% pro-Conan.  Meanwhile, Leno’s supporters tended to be older, they tended to not have much use for social media, and they tended to be a bit more pragmatic.  Jerry Seinfeld sided with Jay, saying that the only problem was that Conan wasn’t getting the ratings.  Jimmy Kimmel very publicly sided with Conan.  David Letterman let everyone know that they were now seeing the Jay Leno that he had always known.

It was a mess and no one came out of it untouched.  Leno returned to hosting The Tonight Show but his reputation with now irreversibly tarnished.  Conan moved to TBS and, while the critics respected him and his fans continued to love him, he never quite regained the cultural prominence that he had before The Tonight Show debacle.  Most of all, NBC came out of it looking worse than ever.  The entire reason for Jay’s early retirement announcement was to avoid conflict and controversy.  Needless to say, that didn’t work out.

Looking over it all, one can’t help but wonder how a group of industry professionals, people with television experience who were paid to know what they were doing, could have so dramatically screwed everything up.

Bill Carter’s The War For Late Night is probably the best place to look for the answer.  Published in 2010, mere months after Leno replaced Conan as the host of The Tonight Show, The War For Late Night provides an insider’s look at what went down in the corporate offices of NBC as well as what was happening in both the O’Brien and the Leno camps.  Carter also examines what was going on with the other late night hosts while O’Brien and Leno was battling for the future of Late Night.  The book deals with the unsuccessful attempt to blackmail Letterman (remember that?) and also provides an interesting reminder of how likable Jimmy Kimmel was before he got all self-important.

Though Carter appears to be Team Coco, the book itself is relatively even-handed.  Leno is not portrayed a monster and Conan is not transformed into a saint.  (Indeed, the books makes clear that the real villains were the NBC executives, who first screwed Leno by forcing him out when he was at the top of the ratings and then screwed Conan by refusing to give his version of The Tonight Show time to grow.)  Instead, the book suggests that the main reason for the conflict between the two hosts was that Leno and Conan had two very differing ways of looking at their job as host of The Tonight Show.  Jay viewed it as a job.  Conan viewed it as almost a holy calling.  In the end, Jay was incapable of understanding why Conan was so upset about what was happening while Conan couldn’t understand how anyone couldn’t be upset.  After reading Carter’s book, it seems like a foregone conclusion that NBC would side with Jay.  Management always prefers an employee who doesn’t make waves compared to one who does.

Towards the end of the book, when David Letterman tries to arrange for Conan to appear in a Super Bowl commercial with him and Jay, Conan snaps that Letterman doesn’t understand how upset Conan still is over what happened.  Conan says that he will never be ready to laugh about it and, having read The War For Late Night, you don’t doubt it.  The book succeeds at both explaining what happened and also revealing the human beings behind the conflict.  In the end, even if you understand Jay’s position, your heart breaks for Conan.

Novel Review: The Power Exchange by Alan R. Erwin

The Northern states are hit by a harsh and deadly winter, one that leads to a nation-wide blackout.  The residents of a Buffalo nursing home die while waiting for help that never comes.  Panics sets in across the nation as citizen realize that the federal government can’t solve all of their problems.  The President, a craven politician, puts the blame on the state of Texas, saying that the state has been hoarding its energy resources and not contributing their fair share to keep the rest of the country running.

With the President determined to make Texas into a scapegoat and proposing a series of new regulations designed to take control of the state’s natural resources, the people of Texas rebel.  The newly elected governor fights back, announcing that Texas is prepared to take advantage of the controversial clause in the article of annexation that he says gives the state the right to secede.  China and OPEC are quick to offer aide to the new Republic of Texas.  While the courts and Congress debate whether or not Texas has the right to leave the union, the CIA decides to take action into their own hands….

That may sound like a particularly paranoid take on today’s headlines but it’s actually the plot of a 1979 novel called The Power Exchange.  As a Texan, what can I say?  The idea of seceding from the Union has always been a popular one down here, even if it’s not something that we necessarily take seriously.  After all, we know that the rest of the States don’t really like us and, for the most part, we don’t like them either.  (Not me, though!  I love every state in the Union.)  So, why not secede and close the northern border and basically kick out anyone who complains about the weather or demands to know why we don’t have a Waa Waa on every street corner?  It’s an enjoyable little fantasy, even if it’s probably for the best that it will never happen.  For one thing, if Texas actually did secede, Austin would probably then want to secede from the Lone Star Republic and form the People’s Collective of Travis.  And if Austin seceded, Dallas would definitely follow, just so we could brag about how much better The Free Republic of Dallas was when compared to all of the other new nations on the North American continent.  Things would get messy.

The whole point of The Power Exchange is that it would be very difficult for Texas to secede.  Not only would there by legal issues but there would also be military conflict.  The new nation would have to make some deals with some less than savory characters.  In the book, it may be Governor Jack Green who masterminds the secession but it falls to Lt. Gov. Margaret Coursey to actually pull it off and she quickly learns that there is no easy way to declare your independence.  The book was written by political journalist so, needless to say, the sections about how secession actually works tend to get a bit overly technical.  Fortunately, there are also secret agents, assassins, and one out of nowhere sex scene that is tossed in to keep things from getting too dry.  One thing I’ve learned from reading old paperbacks is that every novel, regardless of the subject matter, had to have at least one sex scene randomly tossed in.  It’s kind of like when a character in a movie suddenly curses just to make sure that the movie gets at least a P-13 rating.

The Power Exchange was among the many paperbacks that I inherited from my aunt.  I read it the week after Christmas.  It was a quick read and fun little “what if?” scenario.

Book Review: Things I’ve Said But Probably Shouldn’t Have by Bruce Dern, with Christopher Fryer and Robert Crane

Bruce Dern is an interesting person.

He’s an actor, of course.  He spent a lot of his early career playing bad guys.  He was in a lot of biker films.  He killed John Wayne in a western.  Even Dern’s heroes were often unhinged in some way.  As he aged, he made the transition to becoming a character actor.  He still often plays characters who have their own individual way of looking at the world but now a Dern character is just as likely to be seen dispensing wisdom as he is to be seen killing people.

In real life, Bruce Dern was born into a socially prominent family.  (When Dern was born, his grandfather was serving as Secretary of War in FDR’s presidential cabinet.)  His godfather was Adlai Stevenson, who ran for president a handful of times.  Dern was a championship runner in high school.  When he was 20, he tried out for the Olympics.  In Hollywood, he appeared in both studio productions and independent films.  He was friends with everyone from Jack Nicholson and Dennis Hopper to John Wayne.  He worked for both Robert Evans and Roger Corman.  At the same time that Dern was playing drug-crazed bikers in Roger Corman movies, he was perhaps unique for being one of the few young actors in Hollywood who didn’t do drugs.  As he has commented in several interviews, he played Peter Fonda’s acid guru in The Trip despite the fact that he had never so much as even held a joint.

Bruce Dern is one of those actors who tends to show up in a lot of documentaries about Hollywood in the 60s and 70s.  If you read a book about that era, you can be sure that you’ll come across a lot of quotes from Dern.  Usually, Dern comes across as being both witty and straight-forward.  He’s an opinionated guy and he doesn’t hold much back.  It’s not surprising that he would be someone who many would want to interview.

Things I’ve Said, But Probably Shouldn’t Have is Bruce Dern’s memoir and it’s just as quirky as you would expect it to be.  Now, I should make cleat that the book was published in 2007, which was a a few years before Bruce Dern made his comeback with the Oscar-nominated Nebraska.  It was also written before Dern became a member of the Quentin Tarantino stock company and was introduced to an entirely new generation of filmgoers.  At the time this memoir was published, Dern was a part of the Big Love cast and his last “big” movie was Monster, in which he had a small but memorable role.  Things I’ve Said…. was written before the “resurgence” of Dern’s career and, as such, there are certain parts of the book that almost feel like an elegy.  At times, it’s almost as if Dern is saying, “Okay, I was never as big as I should have been but I still had fun.”  Fortunately, films like Nebraska and others reminded people of just how good an actor Bruce Dern actually is and, even in his mid-80s, he’s a busy character actor.

As you would probably expect, Things I’ve Said is a bit of a quirky book.  If anything, it reads as if Dern just sat down beside you and started talking about his career.  It skips back and forth through time.  Just because a chapter begins by discussing one subject, there’s no guarantee that it’ll stick with that topic.  A chapter about his Oscar-nominated turn in Coming Home also contains his thoughts on Florence Henderson (“A Cloris Leachman type dame …. a real fox”) and the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  Some of his best-known films are mentioned only in passing while others, like The The Incredible Two-Headed Transplant, get an entire chapter’s worth.  He writes about how he came up with the perfect final line for Walter Hill’s The Driver and how he created his most memorable movie psycho, the blimp pilot in Black Sunday.  He writes about turning down roles that were offered by everyone from Woody Allen to Francis Ford Coppola to Bernardo Bertolucci.  (Coppola, Dern writes, offered him the role of Tom Hagen in The Godfather but just as a bargaining tactic to get Robert Duvall to reduce his salary demands.)  Dern writes about his friendship with Jack Nicholson and the other members of the Hollywood counter culture and how he always found himself competing with people like Nicholson and Scott Wilson for roles.  He also discusses how killing John Wayne in The Cowboys led to him receiving death threats and getting typecast as a villain.  Dern seems to be more annoyed by the typecasting than the threats.

It’s an enjoyable read.  Dern comes across as being a genuine eccentric but he’s the good type of eccentric as opposed to the type of eccentric who keeps dead animals in his basement.  He also comes across as being very confident.  He has no fear of saying that his performance saved certain movies.  But you know what?  Bruce Dern has saved a lot of movies.  So, if he’s a little bit overly sure of himself …. well, he’s the earned the right.

I’ve read a lot of bad actor memoirs and a lot of good actor memoirs.  Bruce Dern’s memoir is definitely one of the good ones.