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Nothing but a Man: Ed Bradley, 1941 – 2006

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Nothing but a Man: Ed Bradley, 1941 - 2006

It seems impossible to eulogize Ed Bradley, whose life and career will be celebrated tonight on a special edition of 60 Minutes, (7 p.m. ET, CBS), without using the word “cool.” Longtime CBS anchor Bob Schieffer described him as “the coolest guy I have ever known.” Washington Post writer Wil Hagood opened his Friday appreciation, “Ed Bradley had cool like a vault has money.” The Los Angeles Times obituary was headlined, “Ed Bradley, 65; 60 Minutes veteran known for cool, calm style won 20 Emmy Awards.” Such descriptions usually go on to mention Bradley’s inquisitive and seemingly unflappable screen presence, his uncanny bullshit detector, his love of jazz and gospel (he started out as a DJ and was a major supporter of Newark-based jazz station WBGO), and of course, his earring.

But the adjective doesn’t do Bradley justice. It’s not that it’s inaccurate; Bradley, best known as a 60 Minutes contributor, was certainly cool by any standard. But when you look at the full arc of Bradley’s career, it seems inadequate. For one thing, the word implies aloofness, and Bradley wasn’t that. He was a fully engaged reporter—empathetic, bemused, skeptical or appalled, depending on the story. More importantly, when “cool” used to summarize Bradley, it seems reductive and strangely evasive, almost like a euphemism—which, in a sense, it is. When we describe Ed Bradley as “cool,” it means he was his own man in a business that demands a certain measure of conformity. (The Post’s straight obit by Patricia Sullivan described him in the first sentence as “a suave and streetwise reporter.”) More specifically, though, “cool” means Bradley was black in a mostly white business in a mostly white country, yet somehow he was able to foreground his identity as an African-American man—with every part of that phrase carrying equal weight—in a matter-of-fact way that left the viewer, and the TV news industry, no option but to accept him on his own terms.

During the first half of his CBS stint, while making inroads in a mostly Caucasian, clean-shaven, ready-for-the-Kiwanis-club branch of broadcasting, Bradley sported a plush beard and wore an Afro—but vocally, except for the platter-spinning bass undertone, he sounded pretty much like any other on-camera reporter. When interviewing African-American newsmakers, he could slip into vernacular to make the subjects more comfortable, but without ever seeming to pander. He was at once industry standard and brazenly unique. His vivid, at times culturally provocative screen persona was not manufactured. It was simply who he was, onscreen and off—an illustration of the phrase, “What you see is what you get.”

That’s not to say Bradley consciously fashioned his career as an agenda-setting statement by a race pioneer—far from it. From the beginning of his stretch at CBS News in 1967, the Philadelphia native and former radio reporter demonstrated dazzling breadth of interest and talent. You could plug him into any situation and he’d always be Ed Bradley—authoritative, at times steely and unforgiving, but also capable of self-deprecation. (His 60 Minutes piece on Muhammad Ali contained a great moment where Ali, a devious prankster, faked falling asleep at a lunch table and began punching the air, at one point jabbing at Bradley and making him flinch; Bradley was fooled for a second, then burst out laughing.) For nearly 40 years, Bradley avoided being typecast as a the go-to correspondent for “black” issues—as if the range of topics that typically fall under that heading, such as civil rights, weren’t simply issues. Bradley was a reporter first; though he was proud of his trailblazing status, being an emblem of such-and-such ranked fairly low on his list of things to do.

Bradley’s national breakthrough came in 1972-73, when he covered the waning months of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam and Cambodia for CBS, and at one point was wounded by shrapnel; later, he covered the fall of Saigon and the plight of the Cambodian refugees. At 60 Minutes, where he became the first African-American reporter in 1981, Bradley interviewed Bob Dylan, Bono and Liza Minnelli as well as Michael Jackson, Muhammad Ali, Tiger Woods and—one of the finest profiles in the broadcast’s history—Lena Horne. (That last one was a high water mark of Bradley the biographical sketch artist, and he knew it. “If I arrived at the pearly gates,” he said on a 60 Minutes anniversary special, “and Saint Peter said, ’What have you done to deserve entry?’, I’d just say, “Did you see my Lena Horne story?’”) He did stand-alone, long-form specials on subjects that either wouldn’t have gotten such extended treatment—or that perhaps would not have been approached with such urgency—if they hadn’t been reported on-camera by a black man: for instance, his award winning 1979 report on the lingering effects of racism and segregation, titled, “Blacks in America: With All Deliberate Speed?”, and his 2000 special on AIDS in Africa, and his 60 Minutes piece on Emmett Till, the Mississippi teen who was killed in 1955 for whistling at a white woman (the piece which reopened the investigation into Till’s murder). But he also profiled Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh and killer-turned-novelist Jack Henry Abbott, did stories on classical music and the underground sale of Russian nuclear warheads, and interviewed Kathleen Willey, who accused then-president Clinton of sexual harassment and assault. (The moment where Bradley asked her, “Was he aroused?” was recycled endlessly by David Letterman; the look on Bradley’s face suggested that he couldn’t believe he was asking the question, either.) All of which is to say that Bradley’s pioneering career was a career first and pioneering second, and that he made statements without seeming to make statements—a feat that was only possible because Bradley was, in and of himself, a statement.

For an example of what I mean, watch Bradley’s April 30, 1975 report on the evacuation of Saigon, filed live from a studio in the Phillippines for CBS’ morning newscast. Rhythmically, his delivery is indistinguishable from any white TV journalist from the mid-20th century—brisk, confident, forceful without being unduly dramatic, uninflected in that Middle American manner that remains the industry standard. But Bradley himself is anything but standard; in fact, he’s revolutionary. He’s a young black man with an afro, leaning casually on the desk beside his microphone like a radio DJ in a booth. He’s wearing a purple, subtly paisley shirt that’s a bit too small for him, emphasizing his strong shoulders and arms, and it’s unbuttoned to his solar plexus, revealing a broad chest and a visible neck chain. He could not be more unlike the anchor introducing his report, CBS Morning News frontman Hughes Rudd, an embodiment of the TV norms Bradley flouted: a 54-year old, slightly nasally white man with pomaded hair, large spectacles and a regulation-issue 1970s anchor uniform (brown suit jacket, brown tie, white shirt). You could say Bradley’s face doesn’t match his voice, but that would only reveal one’s imaginative limitations, limitations Bradley himself refused to accept. It’s more accurate to say that the juxtaposition of that image and that voice—not just in the Saigon story, but throughout Bradley’s career—made simple categorizations impossible, and helped, in some small way, to annihilate received wisdom about what it meant to be a professional journalist, a black man and an American. Bradley’s appearance and demeanor were revolutionary not simply by virtue of what they were, but because Bradley framed them as no big deal. His introductory phrase during the weekly 60 Minutes credits sequence summed it up: “…and I’m Ed Bradley.”

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Awards

Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Costume Design

Honestly, we’re so gobsmacked by AMPAS’s skullduggery that we can’t even see what’s right in front of us.

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The Favourite
Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures

In less than a week, AMPAS has successfully stoked the anger of just about every creative in Hollywood, and perhaps sensing a widespread boycott of the Oscar telecast in response to the banishment of four awards to commercial breaks, the academy has now “clarified” its latest attempt to reboot the Oscars for the TL;DR generation. Yesterday, in a letter signed by the academy’s board of governors—which includes president, director of photography, and hater of cinematography John Bailey—members were assured that the four winning speeches will in fact be included in the broadcast, but with all the walking and talking that it takes to announce the winners edited out. Also, those four categories may or may not be given the short shrift in 2020, as apparently there’s a “rotation” system in place that will, I guess, leave the door open for us to not see Lady Gaga walk on stage next year to accept the best actress award for her performance accepting the Golden Globe this year for “Shallow.”

Honestly, we’re so gobsmacked by AMPAS’s skullduggery that we can’t even see what’s right in front of us. Case in point: When I sat down to write this article, I thought this award was going to be a slam dunk for Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody, but as it turns out, the film isn’t even nominated for its costumes. Because sanity prevailed when voters decided they didn’t find any kind of magic in Brian May pulling out his old Queen outfits for the making of Bryan Singer’s film, maybe it will prevail again and AMPAS will take the Oscars off its planned keto diet. And if it doesn’t, we’ll take some solace in three-time Oscar winner Sandy Powell—who for the third time in her career has been nominated twice in the same year—collecting this award for her gloriously ostentatious, stitch-perfect garbs for The Favourite.

Will Win: The Favourite

Could Win: Black Panther

Should Win: The Favourite

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Berlinale 2019: Out Stealing Horses, A Tale of Three Sisters, & Öndög

These films suggest the cinema as another place where we can simulate and reflect on life within and surrounded by natural landscapes.

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Out Stealing Horses
Photo: Berlinale

On the way into Berlin from Tegel Airport, one of the first signs of the city you see is a large tract of land divided into rectangular plots, on each a shed in a variable state of repair. In fact, you can find such areas dispersed throughout the city. Visitors can easily mistake these colonies for third world-style shantytowns, but in fact they’re the bougiest things imaginable: privately owned allotments, known as kleingärten, that aren’t used as primary residences. It’s an institution that allows urban dwellers with enough money to simulate life “on the land,” a slice of rural life plopped down within the city.

As goes Berlin, so goes Berlinale. Several films in this year’s competition suggest the cinema as another place where we can simulate and reflect on life within and surrounded by natural landscapes. There’s a certain nostalgia in these films’ contemplation of the relationship between people and nature—in an age where our actions have precipitated an ongoing ecological cataclysm, the depiction of natural spaces almost immediately invokes the past.

A particularly wistful note is struck by Hans Petter Moland’s Out Stealing Horses, a film about—stop me if you’ve heard this before—sexual awakening set during a rural Scandinavian summer. The film begins in the dark, cold New Year’s Eve of 1999, as an aged and lonesome Trond Sander (Stellan Skarsgård) hides out in Sweden from his troubled recent past. When the 66-year-old Norwegian meets his closest neighbor, Lars (Bjørn Floberg), the film flashes back to the summer of 1948, which Trond spent at his father’s country house in Norway. In voiceover, Skarsgård’s weathered baritone guides us through his character’s reminiscences concerning the tragedy that befell a neighboring family, and how his relationship with his father (Tobias Santelmann) was altered forever when they both became entangled in it.

Although the bulk of its action takes place in the postwar Norwegian woods, Out Stealing Horses regularly brings us back to 1999, contrasting the gray-and-blue perpetual night of a Swedish winter with the variegated colors of summer. Such blatant romantic symbolism doesn’t initially detract from a film that seems at the outset to promise a thoughtful contemplation of mortality. But as the symbols start to multiply—winter for old age and impending death; summer for youth; flowers, birds, and bees for burgeoning sexuality; thunder for emotional turmoil; water for femininity—and the melodrama becomes conventional and bloated, Moland and co-screenwriter Per Petterson’s subordination of natural objects to human meanings becomes increasingly one-dimensional.

Emin Alper’s A Tale of Three Sisters opens with a car driving into a remote, mountainous area of central Anatolia in Turkey. The car, whose hood takes up the foreground of the frame, belongs to Mr. Necati, a well-to-do city dweller on whom Sevkit (Müfit Kayacan) and his three daughters rely for their livelihood. The four live in a small village nestled in the mountains, and since their mother’s death, each of the three girls has tried and failed to serve as Necati’s family’s maid in the city. Nurhan (Ece Yüksel) and Havva (Helin Kandemir) have just returned from their stint, one that ended because the irascible Nurhan was beating the Necati children, and Reyhan (Cemre Ebuzziya) was returned some years ago when she got pregnant, upon which her father swiftly married her off to Veysel (Kayhan Açikgöz).

Veysel, a reluctant and lazy shepherd by trade, is a hapless fool, the kind of guy who will accidentally piss on a grave, then worriedly pose to his village superiors the question: “Is pissing on graves a sin?” Sevkit and the other men regularly laugh at his expense, and Reyhan and her sisters have little patience for her husband-of-necessity. The village’s mistreatment of the earnest but perpetually outmatched Veysel will have tragic consequences.

Tale of Three Sisters isn’t interested in tidy narrative resolutions. Much of the film consists of evocative scenes set amid the glowing brown-red hues of the area’s mountains and the hearth of Sivket’s family home—one of the most memorable of which is a comic, sexually suggestive sequence involving a huge jug of ayran, a foamy yogurt-based drink popular in Turkey. The film works its way toward a kind of moral resolution, though at times the journey there is a bit of a slog. Sevkit is a domineering father, his words taking over both his home and the film, which occasionally feels as tedious as his daughters find it.

Öndög, by Chinese director Wang Quan’an, is a film that takes an elemental approach to the human condition. A good portion of its running time is made up of long exterior shots of the Mongolian plains held for minutes at a time, the frame cleanly divided between the elements of earth and sky. The action, such that it is, often takes place at dusk, which flattens the silhouettes of the diminutive human figures against the blue-orange twilight sky; at times they look like shadow puppets inching their way across an ersatz, cardboard stage. The film’s aesthetics are grandiose in the same measure that they are playful.

Naturally, Öndög is concerned with life and death, and in a manner that evokes cyclical time. It opens with a pair of deaths—a woman’s body is discovered in a field, and a sheep is slaughtered on camera—and it closes with a pair of births (no spoilers here, but, then again, it’s doubtful spoilers can exist in cyclical time). Landing upon the same symbol of eternal recurrence as Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, Wang evokes dinosaur life: One character shares with another that the ancient reptiles were first discovered in Mongolia, making Mongolians their descendants, destined in millions of years to be discovered again, by dinosaur scientists.

Though the film opens with police discovering the aforementioned woman’s body and a young officer (Norovsambuu) left alone in the field to guard it until it can be retrieved, it leaves this plot thread unresolved, subsuming itself in the anti-drama of the herdswoman (Dulamjav Enkhtaivan) who’s asked to keep the officer company. Roaming around the plains on her distinctive camel and tending to her livestock with only the occasional help of a neighboring, motorcycle-riding herdsman (Aorigeletu), the herdswoman is a model of autonomy and self-determination. She’s faster and better with a gun than the police, and flat-out ignores the herdsman’s constant suggestions that she needs to find a man.

Quan’an addresses eternal, cosmic themes through a portrait of rural characters living in a desolate setting, but even if his interest is in the primeval, he doesn’t make his characters “primitive.” They live closer to death and to birth, but they still play Elvis songs on their cellphones, call the police when they’re in trouble, and have medical abortions. And Öndög’s portrait of the human condition also isn’t portentous or overly self-serious; for one, this is a film that will give you a new appreciation for the inherent humor of camel sounds. Slow but never tedious, set under sky and stars but not in the least bit sentimental, Öndög is the festival’s most profound story of human life on the land.

Berlinale runs from February 7—17.

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Awards

Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Actor

Throwing questions of artistic merit out the window, opponents of a Rami Malek win have dutifully cast doubt on his ideological purity.

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Bohemian Rhapsody
Photo: 20th Century Fox

Given how this accursed Oscar season has thrown one obscenity after another at everyone who has any investment whatsoever in the institution of the Academy Awards, it’s as though AMPAS is inviting the world to burn the Dolby Theater down on Oscar Sunday, as Mélanie Laurent’s Shosanna does to the Cinema Le Gamaar at the climax of Inglourious Basterds. And at this point, considering that one of the four awards being banished to commercial breaks is cinematography, and that AMPAS president John Bailey is himself a cinematographer, the presumption of self-sabotage seems credible.

Such are the affronts to progress toward anything other than ABC-Disney’s maniacal bottom line to reverse the show’s declining ratings, and the deadening effect every bad idea has had on our souls, that Rami Malek winning the best actor Oscar for leading with his teeth throughout Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody slots toward the bottom of our shit list. Malek, who cemented his frontrunner status with a BAFTA win last weekend, may be taking a page, if not the whole ream, from Eddie Redmayne’s shamelessly charming campaign playbook. But in the category’s absence of Ethan Hawke, who ran the table with critics for his performance in First Reformed, is anyone’s reserve of outrage bottomless enough to howl about the inevitable results here, beyond wounded fans of A Star Is Born? (Though, don’t get us wrong. We’re happy to give Bradley Cooper the award if it keeps him from going behind the camera again.)

Throwing questions of artistic merit out the window, opponents of a Malek win have dutifully cast doubt on his ideological purity. You don’t have to flash back to Casey Affleck to regard this tack as a grisly mistake, even if you don’t happen to believe Malek got Bryan Singer kicked off of Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody for preying on underage boys. This is an Academy that nominated Green Book for five awards. Good intentions are still more than enough, and what you say is still as important, if not more so, than what you do. And if portraying Freddie Mercury as a misguided homosexual who just needed to find Britain’s one good gay somebody to love leaves a pretty foul taste in our mouths, at least Malek has managed to avoid letting the N-word slip from his mouth on the promotional circuit.

Will Win: Rami Malek, Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody

Could Win: Christian Bale, Vice

Should Win: Any actor willing to publicly stand up in support of airing all 24 categories.

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