Category: In the Beginning


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Harrison Ford

In his own words, Harrison Ford started out as the class wimp. As luck would have it, he found an interest that didn’t require too much machismo – acting in student plays while attending Ripon College in Wisconsin in the early ‘60s. By age 21, he had a seven-year contract as a studio player in LA, but it wasn’t exactly for the big bucks – just $150 per week.

Ford landed a few small roles, including a memorable part in 1973’s American Graffiti, but his bank roll came mostly from carpentry. At age 35, Ford was fitting a door for Francis Ford Coppola when a studio exec asked him to take a break and read lines with actresses who were testing for a new film. The film was Star Wars and Ford’s lines turned out to be the part of Han Solo – quite a break.

Ford was also the originator of a classic line in the second Star Wars film, The Empire Strikes Back. Just as Han is about to be frozen in carbonite, Princess Leia shouts out “I love you!” Han is supposed to reply “I love you, too!” but Ford didn’t think a cool cat like Han would say that. His reply? “I know,” stated seconds before being enveloped in the goo. Wimp no more!

Meryl Streep

Meryl Streep’s first role was . . . Meryl Streep. Born Mary Louise Streep on June 22, 1949, in Summit, New Jersey, Streep began to study opera singing as an adolescent. By age 15, tired of her frumpy image, she gave herself a makeover worthy of the movies. She got rid of her eyeglasses, bleached her dark hair blond, and transformed herself into the quintessential popular cheerleader and homecoming queen at her high school.

Streep counts the blonde homecoming queen as her first characterization, but her official start in acting came through drama classes at Vassar College. While many believe Streep’s chameleon-like acting to be the result of intensive technical study of her craft, her professors claim that her work was hair-raising on its own. Streep says that when her friends wondered how she learned to do it, she wasn’t really sure how to explain – the Sophie’s Choice star and 2-time Oscar winner simply knew that she loved it, and the rest just happened.

Humphrey Bogart

Ever wonder how Humphrey Bogart got his signature lisp? Bogie was on the traditional prep school path, complete with a stint at the prestigious Phillips Academy boarding school on his way to medical studies at Yale when Phillips kicked him out. He soon joined the US Navy, where he was wounded during the shelling of the Leviathan. His partial facial paralysis resulted in the lisp.

Though never considered a standout, Bogart performed regularly on stage through the 1920s and had a few small contract film roles in the early ‘30s. But his big break came through the insistence of Leslie Howard. Howard and Bogart starred together in the Broadway version of The Petrified Forest, but Bogart wasn’t considered right for Hollywood’s 1936 version. Howard insisted – even threatening to quit if the casting changed – and Bogart kept the part. The movie led to a long-term contract and Bogart eventually rose to stardom in ‘40s classics like High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon. Years later, Bogart and screen star Laruen Bacall named their first child Leslie, in Howard’s honor.

John Wayne

Please don’t get upset, but the swaggerer known as “John Wayne” was born Marion Robert Morrison on May 26, 1907. So, just how did a guy named Marion get to be The Duke?

Like Bogart, Wayne intended to have a professional career. He was accepted at the University of Southern California on a football scholarship and enrolled as a pre-law student. The scholarship didn’t last, though, and after two years, Wayne dropped out and got a job as a prop man at the Fox studio. The director John Ford befriended him and cast him a series of small roles in the late ‘20s – often under the name Duke Morrison (why people call him by his regal nickname). After a string of supporting parts, Ford cast Wayne as the lead in the epic Western Stagecoach, and never looked back. The Duke appeared in close to 250 films including 1939’s Stagecoach, and 1956’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and he still holds the record for most lead roles.

Katharine Hepburn

Katharine Hepburn was an actress whose time had come. Her mother was the co-founder of Planned Parenthood and a feminist who passed her values on to her daughter, while her father, a doctor, advocated against the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. Their unconventional influence encouraged Hepburn to fashion her own path.

As a college student at Bryn Mawr in the late ‘20s, Hepburn started dressing in baggy shirts, sweaters, and even trousers, which became her standard uniform. She also appeared in theatrical productions and later moved to New York to tackle Broadway. Though she was fired after her first night in the production of The Big Pond, she pressed on, eventually landing the role of an American princess in 1932’s The Warrior’s Husband, which led to Hollywood screen tests. Hepburn reinvented herself several times throughout her career – surviving the label “box office poison” after her early successes faded by returning to Broadway in The Philadelphia Story. The play was a hit, and she brought the project to Hollywood and landed her third Academy Award. Her next film, 1942’s Woman of the Year, marked the first of her legendary pairings with Spencer Tracy.

Marlon Brando

Marlon Brando forged a new brand of acting when he first appeared in Hollywood in the ‘50s, smudging the lines between experience and drama. The son of a traveling insecticide salesman and a local actress, Brando couldn’t count many pleasant childhood memories. While his father was frequently absent, his mother was an alcoholic who Brando had to bail out of jail, once even finding her naked in a bar.

Brando used those images, and others, in his acting, drawing on his own emotions and experiences to bring characters to life. Rather than playing parts, he seemed to embody them. In a now-legendary interaction at the New School for Social Research, instructor Stella Adler asked the class to pretend they were chickens in a henhouse who had just learned of an impending atomic bomb. In a room full of Chicken Little’s, Brando was the only one who remained still. When questioned, he explained that he was a chicken – and chickens didn’t know anything about bombs.

Brando credited director Elia Kazan with helping him overcome his fear of memorizing lines and also with his use of props. (In almost every film, from 1951’s A Streetcar Named Desire to 1972’s The Godfather, Brando relates to the objects around him as well as the other characters.) Though Brando is considered the original Method actor, Kazan claimed that was a partial truth. The Actor’s Studio, founded by Kazan, Lee Strasberg, and Stella Adler’s husband, Harold Clurman, taught The Method, a naturalistic form of acting, but Kazan believed that Brando’s method was unique – and the result of his own genius.

 

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Frankenstein’s Monster

Let’s clear this up from the start: Frankenstein is the mad scientist. The monster has no name, and both of them were created by a teenage radical named Mary Shelley. (Also for the record, it’s pronounced Fronk-un-steen) The daughter of progressive parents (one was an anarchist/atheist/free-love promoter and the other the 18th century’s most famous feminist), the young Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin eloped with poet Percy Bysshe Shelley in 1814. Already a prolific poet, Mary had no trouble rising to the occasion in 1816 when, during a summer vacation in Switzerland, her husband and friends decided to hold a scary story-writing contest. Although not the way you’d expect a bunch of casual sex proponents to spend a summer at a beach house, the contest made sense in the context of the weather. It was, as they say, a dark and stormy night – and had been for several months. Earlier that Spring, Indonesia’s Mount Tambora had experienced a massive eruption that launched tons of particulate matter into the atmosphere, blocking out the sun, and launching what came to be known as “the Year Without Summer.” For poorer people, this meant starvation after summer snowfalls killed the harvests, but for the Shelley’s, it simply meant a dreary vacation that needed livening up. And liven it up, Mary did. Inspired by a dream, she wrote the classic story of a mad scientist who tries to create life and ends up giving birth to a monster he can’t control. She was 19. When her story was published as a book two years later, it was an instant best seller.

 

Dracula

Whatever you do, don’t bring up the world’s most famous Count in a conversation with a Romanian. Dracula is a bit of a touchy subject there, where the citizens remember the inspiration behind the myth. Prince Vlad Tepes, as a national liberator and the man who saved Romania from the Turks. And, frankly, they think this whole evil creature of the night thing is an intentional smear campaign. Of course, to be fair, Vlad Tepes hardly needed the help of an international conspiracy to build his bad reputation. The 15th-century leader was, like most warlords of his day, a pretty violent fellow, known for spearing his enemies onto pikes and leaving them scattered around the countryside as a warning to others. In fact, his nickname, “Tepes,” means “The Impaler.” Naturally, this sort of behavior inspired the still-living enemies to write about what he’d done, and here and there, embellish it to be even worse. In these accounts, the prince was commonly referred to by a different nickname: Dracula. A diminutive form of his father’s “Dracul” or “the dragon,” Vlad’s antagonistic biographers probably chose the name because of its connotations with another “dragon,” i.e., Satan.

 

 

Godzilla

Get out your hankies, the inspiration for Godzilla is something of a tearjerker. In the early 1950s, the crew of the Japanese fishing boat (ironically named Lucky Dragon No. 5) accidentally stumbled into a chunk of the Pacific being used for clandestine US atomic testing. When a bomb went off, the boat was close enough that everyone on board ended up covered in a layer of radioactive ash. Soon after they returned to port, all of the men in the crew died. Worse, before officials were able to figure out what was wrong with the Lucky Dragon fishermen, their catch had been sold and eaten by average Japanese citizens. Already anxious about nuclear technology after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the public was infuriated and horrified by what happened. Among them was Tomoyuki Tanaka, a film producer who was so distraught by the real-life event that he crafted a story about a sea demon that had mutated to a huge size thanks to man’s obsession with building deadlier and deadlier weaponry. (Yes, the demon was a metaphor. Keep up, people!) The demon’s name: Gorillawhale. OK, not exactly. Instead, Tanaka combined the Japanese words for Gorilla and Whale (“Gorira” and “Kujira”) into a single word: Gojira. Naturally, the Americans went and screwed that up, too, and Gojira became Godzilla.

 

 

 

 

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Marijuana

No matter how you feel about reefer, you can’t deny that the ancients were clearly on its side – and we do mean ancient. The cannabis plant was probably cultivated in the Middle Stone Age in northeast Asia; there’s evidence for its use a fiber going back more than 6,000 years. The Assyrians in the 8th century BC, referred to it fondly as “Qunubu,” the Indians used it as an aphrodisiac (apparently it puts the “Tantric” in “Tantric sex”), and the Chinese around the 1st century BC believed that burning it as incense could lead to immortality. The Chinese word for hemp is “ta-ma,” which means “great fiber,” and there’s evidence that the Chinese were using it for more than just making dumpy clothes when they coined the word: the character “ma” has a special connotation referring to spacey senselessness. Comfortably numb, indeed!

By the way, the slang term “420” did not get its start as a police code for a drug bust, or because there are 420 chemicals in marijuana (there are actually about 315), or because it’s Hitler’s birthday, all of which are popular rumors. The “420” was simply the time of day that a small clique of kids at San Rafael High School in California used to enjoy getting high in 1971. Why it caught on nationwide, we dunno, man.

Cocaine

Partygoers love it because it’s a stimulant; models love it because it’s an appetite suppressant; and in the 19th and early 20th century, doctors loved it because it was an anesthetic. Specifically, cocaine was used topically to numb the skin during eye and throat surgery. Of course, recreationally, it used to be quite popular with the intelligentsia, from Arthur Conan Doyle to Ulysses S. Grant, from Sigmund Freud to William Halstead, the great surgeon who experimented with it and got himself addicted in the process. And about Coca-Cola – the first versions of the drink really did have trace amounts of cocaine. Coke (the brown stuff) wasn’t completely free of coke (the white stuff) until the 1920s.

Narcotics

The term comes from the Greek word narkotikos, meaning “deadening,” and it refers to derivatives of a substance found in the unripe seeds of the poppy plant: opium. Known to humans since the Neolithic age, opium was a popular painkiller in the ancient world (Hippocrates was familiar with it) and, later on, an entertainment for Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Morphine, named after the Roman sleep god Morpheus, was synthesized in 1803. Ironically, it was the search for a substance that could wean people off morphine that led to the discovery of heroin. For years, the pharmaceutical company Bayer actually held the trademark for the word “heroin” and sold it as a cough and headache remedy. Some patients in today’s intensive-care units are still given cough medicines made from, shall we say, prescription-strength opiates. As for “hillbilly heroin” or OxyContin, it’s a relatively new drug, approved by the FDA in 1995 for chronic-pain and cancer patients.

Benzodiazepines

Some common benzos (not to be confused with “Benzos,” the gangsta-rap term for Mercedes-Benz vehicles) are Xanax, Valium, Halcion, and Rohypnol, the date-rape drug known as a “roofie.” Valium was invented in 1963 by the drug company Hoffman-La Roche, the same group that invented Rohypnol (initially created for patients needing deep sedation) about ten years later. But that’s not its real origin – Valium (or, to be technical about it, diazepam) is an all-natural chemical, and trace amounts can be found in wheat and potatoes. Today, it’s mainly used as a sedative to treat anxiety.

Acid

Lysergic acid derivative (LSD) wasn’t discovered until the mid-1900s, but it pops up in history well before that as “ergot,” a fungus that grows on rye. In the Middle Ages, Europe was wracked by poisonings to which thousands of people died of “St. Anthony’s Fire” – a gangrenous disease that resulted from eating rye bread tainted with this precursor of LSD. (There was also a convulsive form of the disease, in which people basically suffered from bad trips.) Ergot poisonings were still happening in Russia as late as 1927. By then, though, doctors had learned to wield ergot to decrease suffering, not cause it – a doctor in Frankfurt appears to have used it to induce labor in pregnant women as early as 1582.

Lysergic acid is the active ingredient in ergot, and “active” is definitely the right word, as the Swiss chemist Albert Hoffman, who unlocked LSD’s secrets, discovered while experimenting on himself in the late ‘30s and early ‘40s. (He’s no relation to Abbie Hoffman, the hippie activist who was also a big fan of drugs.) Of one experiment, Albert Hoffman wrote: “The dizziness and sensation of fainting became so strong at times that I could no longer hold myself erect, and had to lie down on a sofa. My surroundings had now transformed themselves in more terrifying ways. Everything in the room spun around, and the familiar objects and pieces of furniture assumed grotesque, threatening forms. They were in continuous motion, animated, as if driven by an inner restlessness. The lady next door, whom I scarcely recognized, brought me milk – in the course of the evening I drank more than two liters. She was no longer Mrs. R., but rather a malevolent, insidious witch with a colored mask.” We have no idea why people think this sounds fun.

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