Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Remembering Steve McQueen

Photos-Donna Redden
Steve McQueen with the English Director Peter Yates during the filming of "Bullitt" 

Had he lived, actor Steve McQueen would have been 85 today. It is amazing when I run into someone in their mid to late twenties who actually knows who McQueen is, and equally shocking when they don't. Those who do, are generally film buffs. Those who don't, need to be given some slack, considering that Steve died young in 1980 of complications from Mesothelioma. He was only 50. 

Casting age aside, Steve was the world's highest paid and biggest box office draw from 1967 to 1980. Among his great films are "The Sand Pebbles", "Bullitt" and "Papillon"--co-starring Dustin Hoffman. His life and achievements were amazing. 

Born in Beech Grove, Indiana in 1930, he was largely a throw-away kid, abandoned by his father and forced to endure life on and off with his troubled mother. A stint at the Chino Hills, California's Boys Republic reform school helped provide some grounding to his life. Service in the Marines followed, and upon his discharge, many lean years resumed in New York where he and Martin Landau were selected from among 2,000 hopefuls for The Actor's Studio. 

McQueen's Solar Productions filmed "Bullitt" in San Francisco 

From the television series, "Wanted Dead or Alive" to his break out role in "The Great Escape", McQueen acted with such stars as Richard Crenna, Paul Newman, Natalie Wood, Sir Richard Attenborough, James Garner, Faye Dunaway, Edward G. Robinson, and Dustin Hoffman. 

These photographs from the 1968 film, "Bullitt" are telling. The film itself secured McQueen as the undisputed "King of Cool", the anti-hero who is inextricably drawn into conflict against his will. He remained troubled throughout his adult life by personal demons, but found peace in his final years as a born-again Christian. He was a quiet philanthropist, who donated generously to The Boys Republic, and to troubled youth to the very end of his life. 

Photo--Marshall Terrill

Despite the overwhelming success of "Bullitt", McQueen never played a cop again. Other notable films include: "The Magnificent Seven", "Love with the Proper Stranger", "The Cincinnati Kid", "Junior Bonner", "The Getaway" and "Tom Horn" among many.  

While the film, "Bullitt" is largely remembered for the famous car chase that has never been duplicated, acting students are encouraged to study McQueen's physicality and improvisation in the film. One such scene involves McQueen examining a room in a seedy motel, where a witness under police protection is murdered. Never a Method actor, McQueen relied entirely on his instincts, and delivered a masterpiece performance without uttering a single word. His reliance on facial expressions, and his impeccable timing resonates deeply with fans in non-English speaking countries who revere McQueen for his courage and tenacity. His authenticity as an actor often leads to debates about who was more influential--Marlon Brando or McQueen. (On my REEL PAGE you can watch my interview with McQueen biographer Marshall Terrill, who addresses this issue at: www.michaelmanning.tv). 

Columbia Pictures
The grueling physical requirements of the 1973 prison drama "Papillon", based on the autobiography of Henri Charrierre is considered among McQueen's finest screen performances. His range was quite broad, and he is today regarded with awe for the films he chose, as much for the 94 films he turned down. These included: "The Bodyguard" (later starring Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner), "Apocalypse Now" (co-starring Martin Sheen and Marlon Brando), "First Blood" (starring Sylvester Stallone"), "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" (starring Jack Nicholson) and "The French Connection" (starring Gene Hackman). While it's impossible for me to imagine Steve McQueen as an 85 year-old man, it's quite moving that he is still highly regarded among fans old and new, including today's actors in Hollywood, who acknowledge an unforgettable actor who left us far too soon. 


Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Tuesday Throwback: Jerry MaGuire Meets West Side Story

  (Image Courtesy of Tri Star Pictures)

In 2013 I made an "editorial decision" to delete over 2,000 posts from my blog archives, in addition to another 1,000 posts that I had deleted over the previous 18 months. My decision to tidy up my site was inspired by a quotation I've pondered over the years from my Senior Thesis Adviser at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas (one of three universities I attended): "I believe that the ability to incorporate new ideas and discard outdated ones is the most important trait in reaching any goal". 
One of the posts that survived my updating was, in fact, only the second blog I had written.  I'm re-posting it with the hope that you enjoy reading it and laugh as hard at me as I did at myself.
Years ago, I could still enjoy a glass of wine without incurring a migraine headache. For the sake of this story, I'll call the girl who was my date by the name of Jennifer. Standing at five feet, five inches tall with short brunette hair and a slim build, Jennifer was very cute. I stood at five feet six inches, so it was a good day. I can't recall exactly how we met, but I'm fairly certain that we encountered each other in an upscale (and now-defunct) bar near my college campus. I was there one night with a buddy of mine, and we were laughing over our experiences as summer boarders at a fraternity house for Engineering and Architecture students. Jennifer walked in to meet a girlfriend over a couple of drinks, ostensibly to discuss a boyfriend who had cheated on her. My buddy had quite a knack for starting conversations with total strangers, and he proceeded to introduce us to the girls using an outrageous opening line that was so contrived, I almost busted out laughing. To my relief, the girls had a sense of humor and laughed at my buddy before inviting us to join them at the bar. I wound up talking to Jennifer, while my buddy entertained her friend. By the end of the night, she and I exchanged phone numbers scribbled on paper napkins after a fun conversation, with plans to go out on a date. The following weekend, Jennifer drove over to my apartment located just off campus. We jumped in my car for a short drive to a popular East Side Italian restaurant. 
Our evening had all of the ingredients of a great first date. I ordered a specialty item from the menu that I'd never order today. It was known as a Seven Layer Salad with iceberg lettuce, spinach, celery, water chestnuts, peas, red onions and diced chicken. This concoction was smothered in mayonnaise dressing with Parmesan cheese, and topped with bacon. Throughout the evening, we traded funny stories about our lives, and managed to polish off almost two full carafe's of Cabernet Sauvignon before I drove her back to her car. The evening ended on a sidewalk directly across the street from my loft apartment, with a prolonged send off reminiscent of the Tony and Maria characters in the classic motion picture, "West Side Story" (played by Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood). We stood on the sidewalk of a one way street that magically became our Champs-Élysées.  
(Image Courtesy of Mirisch Pictures and United Artists)
 Richard Beymer (Tony) with Natalie Wood (Maria)
Our two-carafe dialogue went something like this
My Date: (smiling) "You know, I had a great time tonight". 
Me: (also smiling) "So did I". 
My Date: (starting to appear more serious) "I'm already looking forward to our next date". 
Me: (with the wine talking) "I'll tell ya one thing, it'll be unforgettable". 
(A long kiss ensued with traffic speeding by and car horns sounding approval).
My Date: (after a long pause) "Call me". 
At this point, you could say that I was feeling very good about how the night was going. All I needed to do was reveal a little mystery and bravado. So, I started slowly walking backwards with my forefingers and thumbs of each hand pointed at my date, just as Tom Cruise would do years later in the film, "Jerry MaGuire". Without breaking eye contact, I snapped my fingers, pointing at Jennifer and said "You got it". This was, without any doubt, one of those moments that Bruce Springsteen sang about on his "Born To Run" album! However, my seemingly cool and seductive exit was violently interrupted.

(Image Courtesy of CBS/Sony Records)
As I turned to cross the street, a massive attacker struck me squarely in the chest with what appeared to be a large hammer. It all happened in a split second! I was certain that the assault on that sidewalk had broken my sternum. The air escaping my lungs sounded like a first grader scraping a black classroom chalkboard with his fingernails. My backward fall onto the pavement seemed to occur in slow motion--in hindsight, probably due to shock. On the verge of losing consciousness from the pain as I collapsed onto the warm summer concrete, I managed to catch a glimpse of the assailant--a cast iron parking meter rocking back and forth! I was now flat on my back. Jennifer rushed forward and knelt at my side. Yes, this was the ending of "West Side Story", and I was Tony dying in Maria's arms after a rumble with a rival street gang. Never mind that this drama would have technically been called "East Side Story" for accuracy. Cue up Leonard Bernstein's somber opening to the song "Somewhere". The exception to this comparison was obvious. If Jennifer was "Maria", she wasn't singing. She looked horrified! And if I was her "Tony", I certainly did feel as if I was dying. I just had the wind knocked out of me and I was struggling to breathe! 

 (Image Courtesy of Mirisch Pictures and United Artists)
Very similar to me laying on the sidewalk outside my old off-campus apartment.
As soon as it became apparent that I wouldn't require artificial respiration, I remember that Jennifer's face began to reflect a strange mixture of humor and pity. "Are you all right? Tell me! Is there anything I can do?", she pleaded. In those precious seconds,  I went from a debonair leading man to a certified imbecile who walked chest-first into a parking meter that was anchored in two feet of concrete! Ultimately, I started to breathe again, and Jennifer gently helped me up off the pavement. She even managed a hug. By now, the only thing I was "dying" of was embarrassment. Jennifer's sweet voice was sobering. "Do you need me to walk you across the street?", she asked. "No, no, uh. That uh...that won't be necessary. Really, I'm okay". Exit stage left. 
As I crossed the street and made my way inside the apartment, I had a very bad feeling about the prospects of that second date we had mentioned so passionately only minutes earlier. In fact, somewhere between the attack of the parking meter and our next outing, Jennifer's two-timing beau re-entered the picture. I was informed by a "Dear John" style telephone call that there would be no second date. To my credit, I told Jennifer that I understood, and wished her well. That memorable movie...
At the end of "West Side Story", a lone police car pulls up with it's flashing red light illuminating Maria kneeling on the ground and holding a dying Tony in her arms. The camera pulls away, the musical score is a dirge of dread, and the scene fades to black. 
I did try to contact Jennifer a couple of weeks later. You can never tell how those two-timing guys fare after they return. Her phone number had been disconnected. I'd like to think she is very happy today. On a recent visit back to my college campus, I noticed that the fabled parking meter fell victim -- no pun intended --to urban renewal, and is no longer anywhere to be found. It's just as well. 


(Image Courtesy of Columbia Records)

   Winter Photo--Michael Manning: (taken by a passerby with a disposable camera for this story).

Thursday, March 12, 2015

"Wild": A Brief Film Review

Image Licensed under Fair Use via Wikipedia-Fox Searchlight Pictures 
The theater I attended was packed for an afternoon showing of Reese Witherspoon's movie, "Wild". Despite a theater ticket agent having advised me a week earlier that some audience members left the movie early, I was impressed enough by the online print and video interviews I accessed with Witherspoon to have a look at the film. I was glad I did. 

Interestingly, this marked my second experience over the past year with a film focusing on a story of personal survival. Robert Redford's epic film, "All Is Lost" was the first. 

In "Wild", Witherspoon (also marking her producing debut) turned in a terrific performance under often harsh filming conditions in the Northwest states of Oregon and California. The movie is based on the true life story of Cheryl Strayed's 2012 memoir, "Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail". The film co-starring Laura Dern, is directed by Jean-Marc Vallée with the screenplay adapted by Nick Hornby. Both actresses received Academy Award nominations in 2014 for their performances. 

It's interesting to me that I thought of the Redford film days later. In that particular project, Redford is the sole actor, with a spartan script that forced him to rely on pure instincts. At the time that film was released, a friend of mine frankly told me, "I don't think I could tolerate seeing it" (from the standpoint of anxiety). Neither is "Wild" a film for the faint of heart. 

Set in 1995, Cheryl Strayed makes a bold decision to hike a one thousand mile-section of the Pacific Crest Trail in an effort to heal the wounds of an abusive alcoholic father, the death of her mother from cancer at 45, her heroin addiction, years of destructive behavior, and a divorce. Unlike the Redford film, "Wild" uses a multi-linear approach to Strayed's story, with flashbacks to her life as a child, a teenager and adult. Invariably, there are some disturbing scenes that Witherspoon bravely chose to perform, in the spirit of maintaining the authenticity of the book's narrative. To this end, the film is honest in its treatment of heartbreak, loss, grief, and the redemptive power of the human spirit. Audiences will certainly identify with Strayed's discovery of her own capacity for endurance in the face of seemingly insurmountable hardships from the past through the present. It is a remarkable story.

The film had its premier on August 29, 2014 at the Telluride Film Festival. I must have been the last person on earth to know that the film's theatrical release was on December 3, 2014. Locally, the film has been in theaters here in Phoenix, Arizona a little over two weeks. 

At the risk of sounding cliche', Reese Witherspoon's range as an actress is quite impressive and will, no doubt, be a surprise to many. I pondered the film quietly for two hours after leaving the theater. The central core of life's most powerful instinct--survival--is also a hopeful one. 



Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Delta's 747: The Retirement Plan

Airways Magazine

The April 2015 issue of Airways Magazine is already on the shelves of Barnes & Noble Booksellers and fine bookstores and newsstands worldwide. It contains my article, "Delta's 747: The Retirement Plan". 

If you've ever flown aboard the "Queen of the Skies"--the majestic Boeing 747--then consider yourself lucky. The airliner that is responsible for "shrinking the globe", is today flown in the U.S. by two remaining carriers--Delta and United Airlines. 

Driven by Pan Am's legendary chief Juan Trippe and Boeing's William Allen to carry two and half times as many people as the Boeing 707, Trippe reportedly stated to Allen, "If you build it, I'll buy it". Allen replied, "If you buy it, I'll build it". A firm handshake followed in December 1965. Amazingly, both men risked the existence of their company's on the success of the 747, which revolutionized air travel as the safest and most comfortable airplane ever built. Ever the visionary, Trippe viewed the 747 as a "stop gap" design that would eventually be succeeded by supersonic jets (the French-Anglo Concorde and Boeing's 2707) with the 747 transitioning into a new role as a cargo carrier. While Concorde was developed by a joint venture between France and England, environmental impact concerns in the U.S. ended the Boeing 2707 development in the early 1970's. 

With the merger of Delta and Northwest Airlines in 2009, Delta inherited 16 samples of the Boeing 747. Four aircraft have already been retired, and by 2017, the remaining 12 will also be phased out. United currently has not announced plans to retire their 23 Boeing 747's. It feels strange to be saying farewell to a legendary commercial jet admired and flown by airlines all over the world. 

In this article, I examine how the Boeing 747 program began, Delta's history with the aircraft in the past and present, and plans to retire their newly refurbished 747 fleet. With stunning photography, it's great to take a look back at what was once considered an impossible aircraft to build. The Boeing 747 is the personification of comfort and class. 


Wednesday, March 04, 2015

A Brief Film Review of "McFarland, USA"

A Story of Kids with Heart, and a Coach Who Believes in Them:
Recently, I shook my head over something a friend of mine said about going to the movies. She advised me that she let's her boyfriend pick the films for their dates because she is "so bad at it". This struck me as an awkward thing for her to say because I know this lady to be very smart. Giving her the benefit of the doubt, I asked her what movie she and her boyfriend saw the night before. I did this over several occasions, and it soon became apparent that the boyfriend enjoys movies of gloom and doom--"the world coming to an end"--that sort of shell shock, along with violence. I quickly realized that he was no Gene Siskel or Roger Ebert. Those movies are exactly the types I avoid. 

Turn on a local radio or television news station and chances are good that you'll be listening to reporters recounting tragedy after tragedy in your city or town. I don't know about you, but I've had enough of this. To counter this insanity, I've selected "escape movies".  

In the 54 films actor Kevin Costner has been associated with in his career, I was pleasantly surprised to see him in a Disney movie. This project was directed by a lady from New Zealand whom I'd never heard of--Niki Caro. Her break out film was "Whale Rider". I looked up her background and saw that she worked very little in Hollywood, but she had the depth of experience without being jaded in a tough industry, to bring this story to life. She was perfectly willing to take a huge risk on kids who had never acted before, working along side veteran Kevin Costner. Here's how the director responded to this challenge in her own words:  

"It's been mentioned to me a couple of times today that I've taken a big risk on kids who have never acted before. And I don't. I take casting very, very seriously and I take equally seriously my instinct for who can be great. I need no instinct to know that Costner or Maria [Bello] are going to be great but with these kids we had to cast unknowns because there's just not a deep enough pool of Mexican teenage boys that can act and run really fast. There's just not. There's one. And we had to teach him to run. So we did huge open calls, saw thousands of kids, and I knew when I had my seven -- and I had to fight for some of them -- that I had gold. I knew they had the goods, I knew I had the goods and I came to appreciate that Kevin Costner was not just going to be magnificent on screen, but off screen as well, supporting those boys and allowing them to have confidence to stand with him on set. It was perfect."

The idea to feature musician Juanes in the project was brilliant to capture the essence of a small town that had few resources and plenty of hardships. There was, of course, another reason I saw the film. Running cross country in high school was a brutal experience that taught me and my friends about endurance and team work. This is a fun and inspiring movie, again, if you'd like a pleasant "escape". Go see it!



Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Of Spock and High Flight

 All Photos: Michael Manning
This past Sunday found me running late all day. Who among us hasn't experienced this unintended human inconvenience? During brunch, I enjoyed a fascinating conversation with a local neighbor, 87, a retired physician who is keen on researching "The Mediterranean Diet", and we had a spirited conversation about nutrition and Leonard Nimoy's passing over twenty minutes. Afterwards, errands I fully intended to carry out with the best of intentions, were modified. One example is telling. 

My cardio day workout fell short, due to the closing hours of the facility that I frequent. So, I augmented this "truncated workout" by driving directly to the town square to fast walk for another 90 minutes as the sun was setting. 

Nearby, workers were busy dismantling an interesting display of cardboard birds, perhaps Loons, tethered to nylon strings.    

At Dusk
It strikes me as interesting that most of us are familiar with the sonnet, "High Flight" composed by the American Officer Pilot John Gillespie Magee, Jr. According to the U.S. Air Force public information portal, Magee was born in Shanghai, China in 1922 and was the son of missionary parents. His father was American and his mother was a British citizen. After arriving to the United States on a prestigious scholarship to attend Yale University in 1939, he enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force, graduated as a pilot and was transferred to England in July 1941 for combat duty. It is thought that somewhere between August and September, 1941 he composed "High Flight" and mailed a copy to his parents. 

Tragedy struck on December 11, 1941 when his Supermarine Spitfire, a British single-seat fighter plane collided with another aircraft. Magee died in the crash at age 19, and is interned in a church cemetery at Scopwick, Lincolnshire, in a county just east of England. Two points came to my mind. 

My recent magazine article was published in Lincolnshire, and in my previous post on Leonard Nimoy, I noted that he was a private pilot. Officer Pilot Magee's poem appears on the headstones of many aviators and astronauts in Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C. where I visited in 2005. That these words were created by a man only 19 years of age, still amazes me.  

High Flight 
By: John Magee
Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,
 And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
 Sunwards I’ve climbed and joined the tumbling mirth
 Of sun-split clouds – and done a thousand things
 You have not dreamed of - wheeled and soared and swung 
 High in the sunlit silence. Hovering there,
 I’ve chased the shouting wind along and flung
 My eager craft through footless halls of air,
 Up, up the long delirious burning blue
 I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace,
 Where never lark, or even eagle, flew;
 And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
 The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
 Put out my hand, and touched the face of god.

President Ronald Reagan, addressing NASA employees following the loss of the Space Shuttle Challenger crew in 1986, used the poem in a well-remembered line:

"We shall never forget them nor the last time we saw them, as they prepared for their mission and waved good-bye and slipped the surly bonds of Earth to touch the face of God."


Monday, March 02, 2015

Leonard Nimoy 1931 -2015

(March 26, 1931 - February 27, 2015) 
"A life is like a garden. Perfect moments can be had but not preserved, except in memory. LLAP" (Live Long and Prosper).

--Leonard Nimoy's final post on Twitter 4 days before he passed away. 
When actor Leonard Nimoy died last Friday morning in Los Angeles, like millions of others, it saddened me. Outside of the late Orson Welles, I'm hard-pressed to summon another actor to memory who can truly be called a "Renaissance Man". 

His achievements are far beyond the scope of this blog post. Nevertheless, I encourage you to Google his biography. His life was well lived: Actor, Writer, Director, Producer, Musician, author of two Autobiographies, Poet, Photographer; he had  an abundant sense of humor, and was a generous contributor to the Arts. To wit, he and his wife Susan played a significant role in the restoration of the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, and today, a theater at the Observatory site bears his name. Beyond Theatre, Film, and Television, Leonard was a Voice Over Artist, a man genuinely curious about life and space travel, and an actor who may not have taken himself seriously, but who took his craft seriously. A private pilot, he owned his own airplane, possessed a remarkable work capacity, and inspired NASA to "go further". He was driven by a curiosity in life that lent a magnificent authenticity to inspire the imaginations of so many others. Upon news of his passing, NASA officials paused and delivered a tribute in social media to Leonard for encouraging their efforts.

He rediscovered his Jewish heritage, and in 1991, he produced and starred in "Never Forget", a television movie based on the story of a Holocaust survivor who sued a neo-Nazi organization of Holocaust deniers. In fact, it was Leonard's religious upbringing that played a significant role in the character of Mr. Spock's split-fingered right-hand salute that was followed by the life-affirming message to "Live Long and Prosper". He introduced the greeting in a 1967 Star Trek episode on television, and 50-years later, he was humbled that fans would recognize him in the street and greet him with that same hand gesture-blessing. 

Photo: Terry W. Virts and NASA.gov/ public domain
NASA Astronaut Terry W. Virts, who is aboard The International Space Station, tweeted this photo of the hand gesture-blessing of Leonard as the space craft passed over his birth place of Boston. I submit that Leonard Nimoy left our world a far better place, by sharing his many talents, and allowing us to ponder, creatively and peacefully, how to serve one another. 

He will be missed.