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5 for the Day: Katharine Hepburn

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5 for the Day: Katharine Hepburn

A. Scott Berg, longtime friend of Katharine Hepburn, and author of the wonderful and thoughtful biography Kate Remembered, once asked Hepburn, near the end of her life, why she thought she had flourished professionally for so long when most actors and actresses have only a good decade or two. He reports that this was one of the only questions he asked where Hepburn had to pause before replying. She thought a bit and then answered, “Horsepower.” It is not just talent that helps one succeed.

An acting teacher of mine once said, “Those who are successful are not the most talented. Those who are successful are the ones who are most fanatical about success.” Hepburn’s gifts as an actress are extraordinary. It is a sweeping career, with many facets and phases. But what really strikes me, when I try to look at it as a whole, is not her talent, not her artistry—but her “horsepower”. She had it from the start. She was always in this thing for the long-haul.

My “5 for the Day” focuses on that aspect of Hepburn. Rather than specific films or performances, I have chosen five anecdotes that show, to my taste, what it was that was so special, so positively great about this American icon.

1. In 1930, Harold Clurman, director, producer, dramaturg, big-wig at the Theatre Guild, then the most important theatre group in America, began to hold informal get-togethers for the New York theatre community. His interest was in creating new work, work that was relevant to the times (this became especially important after the stock market crash), as well as forming an ensemble along the lines of The Moscow Art Theatre. Clurman, a brilliant and verbose man, felt that commercial considerations were important, but that they also had the potential to kill really good work. Would it be possible to form a theatre group that could resist those pressures? The people he invited to join these informal get-togethers (which was really an excuse for him to expound on his theatrical theories—he apparently he could go on for hours at a time) were not just unknowns, but stars of the day. Producers, actors, playwrights, people appearing on Broadway at that time, young hopefuls who had shown promise in small roles … Clurman wasn’t interested in a top-down organization, like the Guild—he wanted to create something entirely new. A collective. (And, eventually, he did. Along with Lee Strasberg and Cheryl Crawford, the Group Theatre was born. It had a decade of success before folding. A few of the Group Theatre alums eventually went on to become some of the most influential teachers in American theatrical history: Stella Adler, Bobby Lewis, Sanford Meisner. And then, of course, there were folks like Elia Kazan and Clifford Odets who began with the Group.) Clurman’s ideas about theatre attracted many who were disappointed in the typical Broadway fare of the day. There was an economic depression on. Why wasn’t that fact being addressed by the playwrights of the day?

Katharine Hepburn, a young and unknown actress at the time, was invited to come to one of Clurman’s talks. She sat. She listened. Wendy Smith, in Real Life Drama, the encyclopedic book about the Group Theatre, describes the moment:

“The ideas Clurman propounded were intoxicating, but not everyone was convinced. An oft-told story concerns a pretty young understudy who attended a few meetings with her friend Eunice Stoddard. Asked what she thought of the Group Idea, she replied, ’This may be all right for you people, if you want it, but you see, I’m going to be a star.’ Then, as always, Katharine Hepburn knew what she wanted.”

It is not that her goals were better than theirs. They were as successful, eventually, as it was possible for them to be. It is that “know thyself” is one of the most important qualities an actor can ever have.

2. While rehearsing for Bringing Up Baby, it became quickly apparent (to Hawks, to Grant, and to Hepburn herself) that she was in a bit over her head. She was by now a star, but she had never before played a screwball comedy and wasn’t sure how to do it. She suffered beautifully as an actress—had the Oscar to prove it. But Susan Vance, the wacky insane heiress of Bringing Up Baby, was daunting to this seemingly undaunted actress. Cary Grant, whose sensibility was naturally comedic, had no problem submitting to the screwball nature of the thing. But Hepburn struggled. She was telegraphing to the audience, “I know that I’m in a comedy. Watch me be funny,” And it wasn’t working. In a sense, she was condescending to the material. Not out of any malice, but out of insecurity. She was used to drama with a capital D after all.

Grant was very close to Hepburn, so he was able to speak frankly to her. He said, “Listen, dear, every time I fall, I am just going to look more and more depressed.” Meaning: we don’t have to “act” how funny it is that I just fell on my ass. What is funny in the moment is how embarrassed I am, how devastated I am that once again I look so foolish. But Hepburn still wasn’t quite clicking in to the energy of the thing. Howard Hawks understood the problem and said later, “I tried to explain to her that the great clowns, Keaton, Chaplin, Lloyd, simply weren’t out there making funny faces, they were serious, sad, solemn, and the humor sprang from what happened to them … Cary understood this at once, Katie didn’t.” [excerpted from Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood, by Todd McCarthy]

So Hawks enlisted the services of a friend, Walter Catlett—an old vaudevillian warhorse who had major comedic chops. Hawks showed some of the rushes to Catlett, and Catlett immediately grasped what the problem was in Hepburn’s performance. Hawks wanted Catlett to talk with her about it, but Catlett hesitated. He said he would “coach” Hepburn, but only if Hawks set it up with her beforehand. Hawks set up a rehearsal with Cary Grant, Hepburn, and Catlett.

And here is the genius of Hepburn. Here is, for me, the reason that her acting and her work ethic touches me so much: Catlett, during this rehearsal, read through some scenes with Cary Grant, with Catlett playing Hepburn’s part. He was basically showing her how to do it. So many other actresses would balk at such interference. Not Hepburn. Within 2 or 3 exchanges between Catlett and Grant, the light-bulb went on over Hepburn’s head. Hawks describes what happened:

“Walter played a whole scene of hers out with Cary Grant, played it with every mannerism of hers, very serious, and she was entranced. She said, ’You have to create a part for him in the picture.’ And I did.”

Catlett played the buffoonish sheriff of the town who puts everybody in jail at the end, before being bamboozled by Susan to let them all out.

What I love about this anecdote was that Hepburn, a huge star, realized where she was lacking. She was still learning, and still open to learning. She could have been completely resentful of the “interference” of someone like Catlett, showing HER, the Oscar-winner how to play the scene. But no. She watched, agog, soaking it up, pores open, mind open … and look at the result. Bringing Up Baby was not a hit at the time, but history has obviously vindicated everyone involved. The film is a classic. Hepburn allowed herself to be in the position of student—and she allowed people who “knew better”, people like Hawks, and Grant, and Catlett—to show her the way. This is a true survival instinct at work.

3. Another example of Hepburn’s willingness to learn, to take direction, is this anecdote from the chaotic bug-ridden filming of The African Queen. Hepburn, in her book The Making of The African Queen, describes her initial frustration with John Huston on that shoot, how he never wanted to sit down and talk about the script with her. She loved to have script conferences, to talk about the story … but Huston was always putting her off, “Sure, honey, sure, we’ll get to it … tomorrow … we’ll talk about the script tomorrow …” Tomorrow then came and again it was, “Sure, honey, sure, we’ll talk about the script … tomorrow …”

Now at this point in her career, it may be assumed that she knew how to act. Of course she did. But what this anecdote shows is, again, her flexible mind, her willingness to give up her OWN idea about playing the part, and recognizing when someone has given her a gem, a “way in”.

After the first day of shooting, Huston came up to her. He obviously had a sense of HOW she was planning on playing this part, and he needed to gently steer her in another direction. Hepburn describes their conversation in her book. Watch how he handles her. And watch how she lets herself be led.

Excerpt from The Making of the African Queen, by Katharine Hepburn:

John came one morning to my hut.

“May I have a cup of coffee?”

“Yes, of course—what?”

“Well—I don’t want to influence you. But incidentally … that was great, that scene, burying Robert. And of course you had to look solemn—serious … Yes, of course—you were burying your brother. You were sad. But, you know, this is an odd tale—I mean, Rosie is almost always facing what is for her a serious situation. And she’s a pretty serious-minded lady. And I wondered—well—let me put it this way—have you by any chance seen any movies of—you know—newsreels—of Mrs. Roosevelt—those newsreels where she visited the soldiers in the hospitals?”

“Yes, John—yes—I saw one. Yes.”

“Do you remember, Katie dear, that lovely smile – ?”

“Yes, John—yes—I do.”

“Well, I was wondering. You know, thinking ahead of our story. And thinking of your skinny little face—a lovely little face, dear. But skinny. And those famous hollow cheeks. And that turned-down mouth. You know—when you look serious—you do look rather—well, serious. And it just occurred to me—now, take Rosie—you know—you are a very religious—serious-minded—frustrated woman. Your brother just dead. Well, now, Katie—you’re going to go through this whole adventure before the falls and before love raises its … Well, you know what I mean—solemn.

“Then I thought of how to remedy that. She’s used to handling strangers as her brother’s hostess. And you ’put on’ a smile. Whatever the situation. Like Mrs. Roosevelt—she felt she was ugly—she thought she looked better smiling—so she … Chin up. The best is yet to come—onward ever onward … The society smile.”

A long pause.

“You mean—yes—I see. When I pour out the gin I—yes—yes—when I …”

“Well,” he said, getting up to go. He’d planted the seed. “Think it over .. Perhaps it might be a useful …”

He was gone.

I sat there.

That is the goddamndest best piece of direction I have ever heard.

4. The fact that at the top of her game, at the top of her film career, Hepburn decided to go back to the stage and “work on Shakespeare” is indicative to me that, with all her stardom, all her ambition, Hepburn was interested mainly in the work itself. Shakespeare scared her. Therefore, Shakespeare must be tackled! She toured with Shakespeare productions for years. She toured the world with As You Like It, The Merchant of Venice, The Taming of the Shrew. She writes in her autobiography (with the unceremonious title Me):

“Looking back on my notices, which I had not read at the time, I have the impression that I was irritating to the critics. They liked me in Philadelphia Story, but in Shakespeare—well—it was sort of ’she has a nerve to be doing this.’ Well, I don’t know. I did study and work hard and Constance [Collier] was a great help and it was exciting. At least I enjoyed it.”

Hepburn was a woman who made risk-taking part of the game. So many actors, when they become stars, begin to make choices based out of caution, and self-protection. Perhaps at the beginning they took risks, when they had less to lose, but once the peak is reached, some actors lose that fearlessness. They are afraid of being “found out”. Hepburn never gave a crap about all of that. Her entire career is a testament to that courage.

5. And I’ll end with yet another anecdote of Hepburn and a director. Sidney Lumet was at the helm of the film version of Long Day’s Journey Into Night. A young man, a phenom, he was not at all lacking in ego. But the prospect of directing Hepburn was a bit frightening to him. She was a legend. A grande dame. How would he handle her? Would she test him? Would she be difficult? At first she was. She struggled to dominate. She wanted to hold rehearsals at her house in Connecticut. She told him point-blank that she needed to know more about the script than he did. Lumet knew enough to back off at first. He writes about this experience in his book Making Movies.

These stories bring tears to my eyes. The bravery, the willingness to NOT KNOW, to still learn, to be okay with failing, to get up and try again.

Excerpt from Sidney Lumet’s Making Movies:“During the first three days of rehearsal I said nothing to her about Mary Tyrone’s character I talked at length with Jason [Robards], who’d played his part before, with Ralph [Richardson] and Dean [Stockwell], and, of course we talked about the play. When we finished the run-through reading on the third day, there was a long pause. And then, from Kate’s corner of the table, a small voice called out, ’Help!’ From then on, the work was thrilling. She asked, she told, she fretted, she tried, she failed, she won. She built that character stone by stone. Something was still tight about the performance until the end of the second week. There’s a moment in the script when her youngest son, trying to cut through her morphine haze, screams at her that he’s dying of consumption. I said, ’Kate, I’d like you to haul off and smack him as hard as you can.’ She started to say that she couldn’t do that, but the sentence died halfway out of her mouth. She thought about it for thirty seconds, then said, ’Let’s try it.’ She hit him. She looked at Dean’s horrified face, and her shoulders started to shake. She dissolved into the broken, frightened failure that was so important an aspect of Mary Tyrone. The sight of that giant Hepburn in such a state was the personification of tragic acting.”

Sheila O’Malley blogs about movies, books, and mortifying high school memories at The Sheila Variations.

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Awards

2019 Oscar Nomination Predictions

How has Oscar royally screwed things up this year? Let us count the ways.

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Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

How has Oscar royally screwed things up this year? Let us count the ways. The hastily introduced and unceremoniously tabled (for now) “best popular film” Oscar. The impending commercial-break ghettoization of such categories as best cinematography and best film editing, but most certainly not best song and best animated feature. The abortive attempts to unveil Kevin Hart as the host not once, but twice, stymied by the online backlash over years-old anti-gay Twitter jokes and leading AMPAS to opt for George Glass as this year’s master of ceremonies. The strong-arming of its own membership to deter rank-and-file superstars from attending competing precursor award shows. If these end up being the last Oscars ever, and it’s starting to feel as though it should be, what a way to go out, right? Like the floating island of plastic in the Pacific, the cultural and political detritus of Oscar season has spread far beyond any previous rational estimates and will almost certainly outlive our functional presence on this planet. And really, when you think about it, what’s worse: The extinction of mankind or Bohemian Rhapsody winning the best picture Oscar? In that spirit, we press on.

Picture

Vice

There will be plenty of time, too much time, to go deep on the many ways Green Book reveals the flawed soul of your average, aged white liberal in America circa 2019. For now, let’s just admit that it’s as sure a nominee as The Favourite, Roma, and A Star Is Born. (There’s snackable irony in the fact that a movie called The Front Runner became very much not an Oscar front runner in a year that doesn’t appear to have a solid front runner.) And even though few seem to be predicting it for an actual win here, Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman has an almost spotless precursor track record, showing up almost across the board among the guilds. Predicting this category would’ve been easy enough when Oscar limited it to five films, but it’s strangely almost as easy this year to see where the line will cut off between five and 10. Adam McKay’s Vice may be without shame, but you don’t have to strain hard to see how people could mistake it for the film of the moment. Bohemian Rhapsody is certainly lacking in merit, but, much like our comrade in chief, Oscar has never been more desperate for people to like and respect him, and a hit is a hit. Except when it’s a Marvel movie, which is why Black Panther stands precariously on the category’s line of cutoff, despite the rabid enthusiasm from certain corners that will likely be enough to push it through.

Will Be Nominated: BlacKkKlansman, Black Panther, Bohemian Rhapsody, The Favourite, Green Book, Roma, A Star Is Born, and Vice

Closest Runners-Up: If Beale Street Could Talk and A Quiet Place

Should Be Nominated: BlacKkKlansman, Burning, First Reformed, Let the Sunshine In, and Zama

Best Director

Yorgos Lanthimos

Everyone can agree that Bohemian Rhapsody will be one of the best picture contenders that doesn’t get a corresponding best director nomination, but virtually all the other nominees we’re predicting have a shot. Including Peter-flashing Farrelly, whose predictably unsubtle work on Green Book (or, Don and Dumber) netted him a widely derided DGA nomination. The outrage over Farrelly’s presence there took some of the heat off Vice’s Adam McKay, but if any DGA contender is going to swap out in favor of Yorgos Lanthimos (for BAFTA favorite The Favourite), it seems likely to be McKay. As Mark Harris has pointed out, Green Book is cruising through this awards season in a lane of its own, a persistently well-liked, well-meaning, unchallenging throwback whose defiant fans are clearly in a fighting mood.

Will Be Nominated: Bradley Cooper (A Star Is Born), Alfonso Cuarón (Roma), Peter Farrelly (Green Book), Yorgos Lanthimos (The Favourite), and Spike Lee (BlacKkKlansman)

Closest Runners-Up: Ryan Coogler (Black Panther), Barry Jenkins (If Beale Street Could Talk), and Adam McKay (Vice)

Should Be Nominated: Lee Chang-dong (Burning), Claire Denis (Let the Sunshine In), Spike Lee (BlacKkKlansman), Lucrecia Martel (Zama), and Paul Schrader (First Reformed)

Best Actress

Yalitza Aparicio

Had Fox Searchlight reversed their category-fraud strategizing and flipped The Favourite’s Olivia Coleman into supporting and Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone into lead, the five best actress slots would arguably have been locked down weeks, if not months, ago, unless Fox’s bet-hedging intuits some form of industry resistance to double female-led propositions. As it stands, there are four locks that hardly need mention and a slew of candidates on basically equal footing. Hereditary’s Toni Collette has become shrieking awards show junkies’ cause célèbre this year, though she actually has the critic awards haul to back them up, having won more of the regional prizes than anyone else. The same demographic backing Collette gave up hope long ago on Viola Davis being able to survive the Widows collapse, and yet there by the grace of BAFTA does she live on to fight another round. Elsie Fisher’s palpable awkwardness in Eighth Grade and winning awkwardness navigating the Hollywood circuit have earned her an almost protective backing. But we’re going out on a limb and calling it for the rapturously received Roma’s Yalitza Aparicio. Voters could, like us, find it not a particularly great performance and still parlay their good will for her into a nomination that’s there for the taking.

Will Be Nominated: Yalitza Aparicio (Roma), Glenn Close (The Wife), Olivia Colman (The Favourite), Lady Gaga (A Star Is Born), and Melissa McCarthy (Can You Ever Forgive Me?)

Closest Runners-Up: Toni Collette (Hereditary), Viola Davis (Widows), and Elsie Fisher (Eighth Grade)

Should Be Nominated: Juliette Binoche (Let the Sunshine In), Toni Collette (Hereditary), Olivia Colman (The Favourite), Regina Hall (Support the Girls), and Melissa McCarthy (Can You Ever Forgive Me?)

Actor

John David Washington

Take Toni Collette’s trophies thus far in the competition and double them. And then add a few more. That’s the magnitude of endorsements backing First Reformed’s Ethan Hawke. And his trajectory has the clear markings of an almost overqualified performance that, like Naomi Watts’s in Mulholland Drive, cinephiles decades from now will wonder how Oscar snubbed. If Pastor Ernst Toller and Sasha Stone are right and God is indeed watching us all and cares what the Academy Awards do, Hawke’s nomination will come at the expense of John David Washington, whose strength in the precursors thus far (SAG and Globe-nominated) is maybe the most notable bellwether of BlacKkKlansman’s overall strength. Because, as with the best actress category, the other four slots are basically preordained. Unlike with best actress, the bench of also-rans appears to be one solitary soul. A fitting place for Paul Schrader’s man against the world.

Will Be Nominated: Christian Bale (Vice), Bradley Cooper (A Star Is Born), Rami Malek (Bohemian Rhapsody), Viggo Mortensen (Green Book), and John David Washington (BlacKkKlansman)

Closest Runners-Up: Ethan Hawke (First Reformed)

Should Be Nominated: Yoo Ah-in (Burning), Ben Foster (Leave No Trace), Ethan Hawke (First Reformed), Meinhard Neumann (Western), and John David Washington (BlacKkKlansman)

Supporting Actress

Emily Blunt

Every Oscar prognosticator worth their bragging rights has spent the last couple weeks conspicuously rubbing their hands together about Regina King’s chances. The all-or-nothing volley that’s seen her sweep the critics’ awards and win the Golden Globe, and at the same time not even get nominations from within the industry—she was left off the ballot by both SAG and the BAFTAs—are narrative disruptions among a class that lives for narratives and dies of incorrect predictions. But despite the kvetching, King is as safe as anyone for a nomination in this category. It doesn’t hurt that, outside the pair of lead actresses from The Favourite, almost everyone else in the running this year feels like a 7th- or 8th-place also-ran. Except maybe Widows’s Elizabeth Debicki, whose fervent fans probably number just enough to land her…in 7th or 8th place. Vice’s Amy Adams is set to reach the Glenn Close club with her sixth Oscar nomination, and if she’d only managed to sustain the same loopy energy she brings to Lynne Cheney’s campaign-trail promise to keep her bra on, she’d deserve it. Which leaves a slot for supportive housewives Claire Foy, Nicole Kidman, and Emily Blunt. Even before the collapse of Mary Poppins Returns, we preferred Blunt’s chances in A Quiet Place.

Will Be Nominated: Amy Adams (Vice), Emily Blunt (A Quiet Place), Regina King (If Beale Street Could Talk), Emma Stone (The Favourite), and Rachel Weisz (The Favourite)

Closest Runners-Up: Claire Foy (First Man), Nicole Kidman (Boy Erased), and Margot Robbie (Mary, Queen of Scots)

Should Be Nominated: Sakura Ando (Shoplifters), Zoe Kazan (The Ballad of Buster Scruggs), Regina King (If Beale Street Could Talk), Rachel McAdams (Disobedience), and Haley Lu Richardson (Support the Girls)

Supporting Actor

Timothée Chalamet

The same people who’re curiously doubting Regina King’s nomination chances seem awfully assured that Sam Elliott’s moist-eyed, clearly canonical backing-the-truck-up scene in A Star Is Born assures him not only a nomination but probably the win. Elliott missed nominations with both the Golden Globes and BAFTA, and it was hard not to notice just how enthusiasm for A Star Is Born seemed to be cooling during the same period Oscar ballots were in circulation. Right around the same time, it started becoming apparent that BlacKkKlansman is a stronger draw than anyone thought, which means Adam Driver (who everyone was already predicting for a nod) won’t have to suffer the representationally awkward fate of being the film’s only nominee. Otherwise, the category appears to favor previously awarded actors (Mahershala Ali and Sam Rockwell) or should have been previously awarded actors (Chalamet). Leaving Michael B. Jordan to remain a should have been previously nominated actor.

Will Be Nominated: Mahershala Ali (Green Book), Timothée Chalamet (Beautiful Boy), Adam Driver (BlacKkKlansman), Richard E. Grant (Can You Ever Forgive Me?), and Sam Rockwell (Vice)

Closest Runners-Up: Sam Elliott (A Star Is Born) and Michael B. Jordan (Black Panther)

Should Be Nominated: Timothée Chalamet (Beautiful Boy), Adam Driver (BlacKkKlansman), Hugh Grant (Paddington 2); Richard E. Grant (Can You Ever Forgive Me?), and Steven Yeun (Burning)

Adapted Screenplay

Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Get beyond the best picture hopefuls BlacKkKlansman and If Beale Street Could Talk, which seem deservedly locked, and A Star Is Born, which is even more deservedly iffy, and you’ll see the screenwriters’ branch deciding just how seriously to take themselves this year, and whether they’re feeling like spiritually reliving the moments that found them nominating Bridesmaids and Logan. If so, then expect Crazy Rich Asians and Black Panther to factor in here. If they most definitely don’t feel frisky, then maybe the foursquare First Man has a shot at reversing its overall downward trajectory. If they’re seeking that “just right” middle ground, then Can You Ever Forgive Me? and The Death of Stalin are in.

Will Be Nominated: BlacKkKlansman, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, The Death of Stalin, If Beale Street Could Talk, and A Star Is Born

Closest Runners-Up: Black Panther, Crazy Rich Asians, and First Man

Should Be Nominated: BlacKkKlansman, First Man, Leave No Trace, The Grief of Others, and We the Animals

Original Screenplay

First Reformed

It’s not unusual for some of the year’s most acclaimed movies whose strength isn’t necessarily in their scripts to get nominated only in the screenwriting categories. First Reformed, which even some of its fiercest defenders admit can sometimes feel a bit like Paul Schrader’s “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me” greatest-hits package, stands to be another of them. But it’ll be a close call, given the number of other equally vanguard options they’ll be weighing it against, like Sorry to Bother You, which arguably feels more urgently in the moment in form, Eighth Grade, which is more empathetically post-#MeToo, and even Cold War, which had a surprisingly strong showing with BAFTA. Given the quartet of assured best picture contenders in the mix, First Reformed is going to have to hold off all of them.

Will Be Nominated: The Favourite, First Reformed, Green Book, Roma, and Vice

Closest Runners-Up: Cold War, Eighth Grade, and Sorry to Bother You

Should Be Nominated: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Bodied, First Reformed, Sorry to Bother You, and Western

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Reflections in a Quilt: John McPhee’s The Patch

There’s something uncommonly relaxing about many of McPhee’s patient elaborations of things known and unknown.

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Reflections in a Quilt: John McPhee’s The Patch

“But beyond the flaring headlines of the past year, few are aware of who Richard Burton really is, what he has done, and what he is throwing away by gulping down his past and then smashing the glass.” This is one of those quotes, which, through its sheer heft and style, threatens to turn any accompanying review into a redundancy. To find other lines that meet its towering standard, seek its source: The Patch by John McPhee. There’s no shortage of arresting remarks in this nicely heterogeneous collection of writing. One sinks into the book, riveted, but also races across it as its fascinations multiply.

The first section is called “The Sporting Scene.” Those typically uninterested in sports or sports writing, like myself, shouldn’t be deterred by the title. As I discovered through other recent encounters with McPhee’s ballyhooed writing, the author has a knack for inexorably moving readers beyond their biases. Two-part New Yorker articles like “Oranges,” “The Pine Barrens,” and “Basin and Range,” which were later turned into books, are studious and propulsive. Fine-grained matters of geology or citrus aren’t exactly simplified in these articles, but wading through the density becomes an irresistible prospect thanks to the author’s intelligibility, wit, enthusiasm, and atmospheric touches. For an example of the latter, consider McPhee’s focus on the “unnatural and all but unending silence” of the Floridian orange groves that he visited. What’s more, he often conveys a certain sense of respectful understanding, as when he mentions that he has “yet to meet anyone living in the Pine Barrens who has in any way indicated envy of people who live elsewhere.”

Similar virtues spruce up the “The Sporting Scene.” Its pieces include emphases on fishing, football, golf, and lacrosse. McPhee honors the athletic endeavor by carefully illuminating its particulars. He busily supplies facts, anecdotes, ideas, and biographical details. In “The Orange Trapper,” for instance, he discusses his hunt for errant golf balls. It’s an engaging topic. He has learned, among other things, what occurs when you take a saw to a golf ball. You find the world: “Core, mantle, crust—they are models of the very planet they are filling up at a rate worldwide approaching a billion a year.” Other jolts arrive through the often remarkable conclusions to his paragraphs and pieces. The ending of “The Orange Trapper” is an especial wonder—a thrilling mobilization of words that elicits laughter and awe.

There are also bears: “Direct Eye Contact” is a compact assortment of hopes and advisements concerning bears in New Jersey, and it concludes on a sweetly uxorious note. Indeed, one never knows where any of these pieces are going. In “Pioneer,” meanwhile, McPhee ponders Bill Tierney’s choice to begin coaching the University of Denver men’s lacrosse team. “How could he leave Princeton?” McPhee asks. “It can be done. And Tierney knew what he was doing.” Those lines showcase the occasionally pithy, pleasantly chiseled style of his prose. It’s a considered design that favors clarity, structures hairpin turns toward new discursive trails, and pairs well with punchlines. In “Phi Beta Football,” one of McPhee’s colleagues promises to deliver him “a nice piece of change” if he figures out a suitable title for his book. “I went away thinking,” McPhee tells us, and then adds, “mostly about the piece of change.”

The recounting of sporting events is likewise augmented by the author’s playfulness. “Pioneer” throws us this line: “But Syracuse exploded—one, two, three—and the game went into ‘sudden victory’ overtime, the politically uplifting form of sudden death.” So transporting and genial is McPhee’s writing that the specifics of any given match never weigh down the reading, nor do his more elaborate remarks. “It’s a Brueghelian scene against the North Sea,” he declares in “Linksland and Bottle,” his piece on the 2010 British Open, “with golfers everywhere across the canvas—putting here, driving there, chipping and blasting in syncopation.” What’s even better is his sensitivity, in the same paragraph, to the fine distinctions between the manner of Scottish and Californian galleries as they observe rounds of golf. Suddenly, his words become almost numinous, and no grace is lost.

The second section of The Patch is called “An Album Quilt” and it encompasses a dizzying mixture of short pieces. None are available in any of McPhee’s other books. In an introductory statement, the author compares these pieces to the dissimilar blocks of a quilt. He notes that he “didn’t aim to reprint the whole of anything”; he sought out “blocks to add to the quilt, and not without new touches, internal deletions, or changed tenses.” This section is quite distinct from “The Sporting Scene,” but no less extraordinary in its overall effect. A piece about Cary Grant starts things off. Boyhood encounters with Albert Einstein are up ahead.

There are more standouts than can be briefly mentioned here, including an evocative overview of the craftsmanship that McPhee discovered within the original Hershey’s Chocolate Factory. The author’s clipped expressions of wonder enliven that piece: “Gulfs of chocolate. Chocolate deeps. Mares’ tails on the deeps.” A little later, he mentions “granite millstones arranged in cascading tiers, from which flow falls of dark cordovan liquor.” One can imagine Don Draper reading through this with poignant interest. In another entry, a series of succinct blurbs about tennis luminaries, Rod Laver’s childhood is crisply set against his eventual stardom: “Had to wait his turn while his older brothers played. His turn would come.”

And so one just leaps from piece to piece, and, along the way, discovers scenes from different periods in McPhee’s life and career. An encounter with two New York City policemen—this likely occurred in the ‘60s or early ‘70s, given the “familiar green and black” on the cop car—is particularly memorable. It begins with the author’s recollection of locking his keys inside his car, which, he notes, had been parked “in a moted half-light that swiftly lost what little magic it had had, and turned to condensed gloom.” After that characteristically precise fusion of atmosphere and psychology, he describes scrounging around for wire so as to open the door. The sudden arrival of the policemen created a dilemma: Would they view McPhee, who had been wedging a coat hanger into the car, as a thief or the hapless owner? “The policemen got out of the patrol car,” McPhee tells us, “and one of them asked for the wire.” From there, the situation undulates a couple more times before concluding through a sparkling punchline that’s supplied by one of the officers. The story is over before you know it, but its brisk and detail-oriented pleasures are echoed throughout much of the book.

In the title piece, meanwhile, McPhee movingly writes about his father, but also about fishing a pickerel out of a patch of lily pads. Here and elsewhere, granular descriptions become byways into a range of enthusiasms, histories, and hearts. The author, of course, frequently registers himself through the infinitesimal details, and through the humor that he yokes to affection. “‘Fuck you, coach!’ Quote unquote” is a message that McPhee once emailed to Bill Tierney. Great warmth radiates below the mantle of those words.

This, among sundry other qualities, keeps one reading. There’s also something uncommonly relaxing about many of his patient elaborations of things known and unknown. And there is, both within the book’s individual pieces and across its varied totality, a sense of constant renewal and revelation. As McPhee notes down somewhere amid the blocks of his quilt, “I could suddenly see it, almost get into it—into another dimension of experience that I might otherwise have missed entirely.”

John McPhee’s The Patch is now available from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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The 10 Most-Read Slant Articles of 2018

Our most-read articles of 2018 comprise pretty much everything we do best.

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The 10 Most-Read Slant Articles of 2018
Photo: Rockstar Games

Like last year, it wasn’t the most highly praised or viciously excoriated film, album, or TV show that garnered the most attention among Slant readers in 2018. It was a so-called “average” star rating of a video game that led to our most-read—or, rather, looked at—article of the year. More predictably, lists proved to be increasingly popular, particularly among cinephiles. Aside from a few pieces that didn’t make the cut—like our career-spanning interview with Jodie Foster and our five-star review of Synapse Films’s Blu-ray restoration of the original Suspiria—this list comprises pretty much everything we do best. Alexa Camp
 

The 10 Most-Read Slant Articles of 2018

10. The 50 Greatest Horror Movies of the 21st Century

Into the new millennium, horror films have retained their power to shock and outrage by continuing to plumb our deepest primordial terrors, to incarnate our sickest, most socially unpalatable fantasies. They are, in what amounts to a particularly delicious irony, a “safe space” in which we can explore these otherwise unfathomable facets of our true selves, while yet consoling ourselves with the knowledge that “it’s only a movie.” Budd Wilkins

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The 10 Most-Read Slant Articles of 2018

9. Album Review: Mariah Carey’s Caution

At a mere 10 tracks, Caution is Mariah’s leanest album in 25 years. With the exception of the formulaic “With You,” which sounds like an outtake from E=MC2, the R&B and adult contemporary-style ballads that launched (and re-launched) her career have been largely replaced here by textured, midtempo grooves. Caution feels like the album Mariah has wanted to make all along: one that throws caution to the wind and sees her embracing her inner weirdo. And, ironically, it took her ending up back at Sony Music to do it. Sal Cinquemani

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The 10 Most-Read Slant Articles of 2018

8. Game Review: Far Cry 5

With this entry, the Far Cry series has suddenly decided to crib story ideas from real American nightmares: the Ammon Bundy standoff, Jonestown, the Heaven’s Gate cult, Waco, the Westboro Baptist Church. It indulges a certain level of ejaculatory N.R.A. fantasy about a day when the Second Amendment saves the world, when all those guns hoarded by frightened men, all those survivalist bunkers, all that cynical preparation for the collapse of society proves useful. A regular supply item in this game is called a Prepper Pack. Major secrets are hidden in bunkers filled with canned food and ammo. These little hat tips toward the gun-toting survivalist sect might’ve been worthy of an eye roll had the game come out, say, prior to 2016. But at this particular moment in American life, those tips of the hat feel downright sinister. Justin Clark

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The 10 Most-Read Slant Articles of 2018

7. All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked

It’s a rare type of cinephile who wasn’t introduced to the idea of film as more than just idle entertainment by the ritual of the Academy Awards. And it’s an even rarer type of cinephile who didn’t soon thereafter vehemently reject the Oscar as the ultimate barometer of a film’s artistic worth. Those of us who started off with The Godfather, Schindler’s List, All About Eve, or Casablanca all eventually got around to Out of Africa, Around the World in 80 Days, The Greatest Show on Earth, Cimarron, and Cavalcade. First loves being first loves, we still find ourselves regressing if for only one night a year, succumbing to the allure of instant canonization even as it comes in the form of repeated slap-in-the-face reminders of Oscar’s bracing wrongness: Gladiator, Braveheart, Chicago, Crash. In that sense, consider this project part cathartic exorcism and part sheepish capitulation to the role the Oscars have played in our lives. If we had to sit through every one of these movies, the least you can allow us is the chance to show you our scars. Eric Henderson

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The 10 Most-Read Slant Articles of 2018

6. Film Review: Aquaman

The best point of comparison for Aquaman is Black Panther, another superhero movie about a king of a forgotten realm reclaiming his throne. But whereas Ryan Coogler’s surprisingly affecting superhero film restored weight to both the choreography and the drama of the genre, Aquaman remains adrift, so much fantasy flotsam and jetsam floating before our eyes. Pat Brown

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The 10 Most-Read Slant Articles of 2018

5. The 100 Greatest Video Games of All Time

When compiling this list, my colleagues and I elected to consider more than historical context. Greatness, to the individual, isn’t just about impact on some nebulous past. It’s as much about feeling, about the way a video game can capture the imagination regardless of genre or release date or canonical status. The titles on this list come from every corner of the medium—represented for the precision of their control or the beauty of their visuals or the emotion of their story. We’ve chosen to cast a wide net, so as to best represent the individual passions incited by saving planets, stomping on goombas, or simply conversing with vivid characters. Steven Scaife

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The 10 Most-Read Slant Articles of 2018

4. Film Review: Avengers: Infinity War

What is this, a crossover episode? After 18 films, the overlords at Marvel Studios have gathered almost all of their indentured servants, err, star-studded stable together into the ever-crashing, ever-booming, and ever-banging extravaganza Avengers: Infinity War. Whether you look at this whirling dervish and see a gleefully grandiose entertainment or a depressing exemplar of the culturally degraded present moment will depend on your investment—in all senses of that term—in Marvel’s carefully cultivated mythos. Keith Uhlich

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The 10 Most-Read Slant Articles of 2018

3. TV Review: Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan

If Jack Ryan never gets around to offering its audience a definition of a swift transaction, that’s because all that matters to the series is that it’s a tool used by bad guys, whom only Jack Ryan can stop. Despite paying cursory service to humanizing its principal characters, Jack Ryan is mostly interested in a battle between broad notions of good and evil. It thrives on the tension of Jack’s chess match with bin Suleiman, reducing an entire nation’s efforts to combat terror to a personal beef between two archetypes. Michael Haigis

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The 10 Most-Read Slant Articles of 2018

2. Every Pixar Movie Ranked from Worst to Best

If The Incredibles was essentially a superhero riff on male mid-life crisis, Incredibles 2 primarily concerns male anxiety about women taking over traditionally masculine roles. Brad Bird’s film also touches heavily on the uncertainty and doubt that many women feel about pursuing their dreams at the expense of spending time with their families. These are weighty topics to pursue in an animated action-comedy, and Bird, with a light tone and deft touch, manages to give them their due. This is a fleeter, funnier film than the original, and the director gets considerable comedic mileage out of Jack-Jack’s wild capriciousness, as evidenced by Incredibles 2‘s single most hilarious sequence, in which the baby uses its multifarious abilities—fire, lasers, multiplying, turning into a gremlin—to battle a feral raccoon just for the hell of it. On the occasion of the film’s release, join us in revisiting the Pixar canon, ranked from worst to best. Keith Watson

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The 10 Most-Read Slant Articles of 2018

1. Game Review: Red Dead Redemption 2

For all of the significant improvements Red Dead Redemption 2 has made to an open-world template, however, it still maintains Rockstar’s bullish commitment to a clunky control scheme. Across what’s now four games and two console generations, the company’s characters have lumbered along in what’s meant to convey the weight of a real person in contrast to the light, effortless controls of so many other games. But the result is artificial rather than convincing. Studios like Naughty Dog have proven capable of giving characters a consequential sense of weight without making it a challenge to navigate around a table or requiring you to hold down buttons to move at acceptable speeds. Coupled with middling gunplay feedback and a few too many stealth segments, the chunky act of playing Red Dead Redemption 2 doesn’t feel good so much as it feels, eventually at least, tolerable. Scaife

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