Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Do You Want Crying?: Death Becomes Us -- But Only With Tears on the Side

I get it. I do. I could never condone taking someone else's made-up sob story and passing it off as your own in order to elicit sympathy from your boyfriend, but I sort of understand why Hannah went there at the end of the latest episode of Girls, my favorite of the season so far.

Her e-book editor died, and she was a jumble of mixed emotions to no emotions, and everybody was calling her on it. Ray wanted her to be so distraught that she had to take the day off. Adam wanted her to need his support. And his sister Caroline wanted to witness at least one teardrop explode when she told Hannah a made-up story about a little girl in a tiny dress who died of muscular dystrophy.

But who are they to tell Hannah, who are they to tell anyone, how one should grieve, or that one should grieve at all? Hannah being Hannah couldn't resist making herself the star of her editor's death, so she went around telling everyone that a "close friend" had died. But in fact, David Pressler-Goings was merely an aside on Girls (a memorable one, thanks to Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Rabbit Hole director John Cameron Mitchell's gay-fabulous portrayal of him), a glorified cameo-character, a business associate, one who hadn't even warranted an invitation to Hannah's 25th-birthday party in the previous episode.

A former People magazine editor recently died following a year-long battle with lung cancer, and I surprised myself by dwelling on it in my head for several weeks. I couldn't believe how deeply her passing affected me. She and I hadn't been particularly close, and she'd edited me exactly once during our days at People (She called my description of a track on a Catherine Wheel album "unfathomable," which immediately became one of my favorite words), but we'd reconnected in recent years when we both were columnists for the now defunct (and merged with Forbes.com) website True/Slant.

Her death moved me a lot more than David's nudged Hannah, but neither Hannah nor I actually suffered a loss. A person we knew and worked with died, and for Hannah, he had been in the present tense as recently as the day before, but we didn't actually lose someone.

I'm no monster, and I'd like to think that I'm not cold and callous either, but if I found out that the guy who was about to publish my book was found face-down in the Hudson River ("right by Chelsea Pier, just floating there") after he didn't show up for our morning meeting, you can bet your bottom dollar that one of my first three questions would be the one I was asking myself while watching that opening scene of Girls' fourth episode of the third season: What about the book?

I've been there before. Not exactly in Hannah's earth-tone shoes, but I've found myself wondering what would happen if someone I was doing business with were to suddenly up and die. In fact, I wondered this as recently as last year. The subject of my death what-if is alive and well, and our business deal went off without any funerals, but if he were to pass away in an untimely fashion in a month or two (heaven forbid), I'd be surprised, maybe sad even. But I'm pretty sure I wouldn't shed a tear.

After all, I didn't cry nearly 13 years ago after the mother of a good friend of mine found his body in the bathtub with his throat slit. (Don't stop me if you think you've heard this one before, for unlike Hannah, I'm about to repeat my own story.) I was crushed, especially since we'd had a huge fight on Fire Island over the Fourth of July weekend a few weeks earlier, and the last words I'd ever said to him were "Fuck you!" as I stormed off to catch the ferry back to civilization.

I didn't find out about his death until a day after it happened, early one Sunday morning in August, when I received a phone call from the NYPD. The officer on the other end requested my presence at the Grammercy Park station. He had a few questions to ask me about my friend, he said, calling him by his full name, which sounded strange because I never used it, always shortening it to just the first three letters.

I knew it had to be pretty serious, or he would have interviewed me by phone, and he wouldn't have referred to him using six letters instead of three. My friend lived recklessly, so aside from the fact that we had been estranged for weeks, the phone call didn't take me completely by surprise. I wasn't, however, expecting the worst. When it arrived, it was delivered in the most awkward way: "I'm afraid that your friend is no longer with us."

The cop wouldn't offer any specifics, but he was questioning everyone whose number was stored in the deceased's mobile phone. "Were you close?... When did you see him last?... Was he into any risky behavior?..." I tried to answer his questions as succinctly as possible without invading my late friend's privacy. I was still trying to process his passing, so despite the dire line of questioning, in my mind, he was still out there somewhere, just missing.

I knew I was a suspect and that I wasn't doing myself any favors by being so calm and unemotional. Where were my tears? I tried to make up for my lack of waterworks by wearing what I thought was the appropriate facial expression for such a moment, settling on the look of shocked confusion you might have if you were to open your front door and the person on the other side of it greeted you with a slap across the face. I adjusted my tone of voice and my body language (slightly slumped, head bowed) to match the darkness I was feeling on the inside. A black cloud was hovering over my heart, leaving my soul overcast, on the verge of swelling with rain. But the showers never came, not on the outside.

The next day, I went to work, business as usual. I was despondent, like a zombie going through the motions. My colleagues were sympathetic, but had I not told them what had happened, they might not even have known that anything was wrong. My boss told me to go home, and I said I wanted to work. I wonder whether they thought I was incredibly strong, or heartless for holding it together so well.

No one called me out for not being inconsolable, but I scolded myself enough for all of us. So Hannah's disapproving Greek chorus, their judgmental decree on what grieving should sound/look like was all too familiar to me. Hannah has shown that she's capable of being a compassionate friend indeed, as recently as two episodes ago, when she rented a car and took a road trip with Adam and Shoshanna to pick up Jessa from rehab. So even if she doesn't have the florid words to convince Adam that she'd be crushed if something were to happen to him, I have no doubt that she would have mourned appropriately (in the eyes of her friends) had it been someone close to her whose body had been found floating in the Hudson River.

Her reaction, actually, wasn't that different from that of so many people after September 11, which happened just weeks after my friend's passing. I lost track of how many of them, the ones who weren't in New York City who presumably felt left out of being at the epicenter of the grieving, tried to insert themselves into the tragedy by offering stories about the friend of a friend of a friend who used to date someone whose cousin used to work in the World Trade Center, or by explaining that they very well may have been on that American Airlines Flight 11 from Boston to L.A. that crashed into the North tower, but they'd had to cancel their vacation and stay home in Florida.

People do and say strange things when dealing with tragedy, and rather than telling them how they should be grieving, judgmental friends should ask themselves what gives them the right to police how someone else grieves. Are they wondering how their own death would go over with the non-griever should, heaven forbid, they be next to go?

Geez. Not even Hannah Horvath is that self-involved.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Put It Down: Words That Bring Me To A Tear (Thank you, Mr. Sedaris!)

I can't believe how much David Sedaris and I have in common. Sometimes reading his words is almost like eavesdropping on my own thoughts. If he keeps expressing myself, Oscar Wilde and Ayn Rand might have some competition at the top of the list of my favorite writers, living or dead. Sedaris is already, in my humble opinion, the best of those still among us. I think my high estimation of him has a lot to do with how same but different we are.

I previously attempted to sum up our differences and parallels in one sentence of my book proposal.

The personal recollections recounted within are often as incisive and wry as the musings of David Sedaris, someone who also has documented his experiences as a stranger in a strange land (France, in When You Are Engulfed in Flames, Little, Brown and Company, 2008 -- and abroad, in other best-selling narrative-essay collections), though from a different demographic angle (white, Greek-American).

Our similarities, however, go beyond the superficial lifestyle ones: being gay writers gallivanting around the planet. They run so much deeper than frequent flier miles. He and I share the same concerns about being driven by an overwhelming need to document everything, and the same disdain for clueless tourists wielding cameras around timeless works of art. I like to think he's as much of a loner as I am, which somehow makes me feel less alone when I'm reading his words.

Here's what he had to say in "Day In, Day Out," one of my favorite chapters in Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls, his most recent collection of essays (and that's only partly because "Day-In Day-Out" was the title of one of my favorite David Bowie singles of the '80s).

But if you added every detail of everything that struck you as curious or spectacular, you'd have no time for anything else. As it is, I seem to be pushing it. Hugh and I will go on a trip, and while he's out, walking the streets of Manila or Reykjavik or wherever we happen to be, I'm back at the hotel, writing about an argument we'd overheard in the breakfast room. It's not lost on me that I'm so busy recording life, I don't have time to really live it. I've become like one of those people I hate, the sort who go to the museum, and instead of looking at the magnificent Brueghel, take a picture of it, reducing it from art to proof.

I made a similar point about tourists in Europe five months ago while I was in Florence.

I quickly grew tired of tourists spoiling my view of masterful works of art (like that glorious Fountain of Neptune) because they just had to pose for photos in front of it.

"Why?" I kept asking myself. Not only was I pretty sure that to most onlookers, it's probably just a naked man or something they've been told is important by travel guides, but why is art only of interest if it's interactive? Would these people go to the Louvre and pose with the Mona Lisa? If they could somehow work their way into the Sistine Chapel ceiling scene, for them, it probably would be the greatest holiday coup.

Watching them descend upon monuments to mythological, historic and Biblical figures, appreciating them only long enough to get another photo of themselves to show their friends on Facebook, cheapened what could have been so many magic moments for me. It was like sitting next to a loudmouth at a concert who insists on singing the wrong lyrics to every song.

Here's why, in the words of Sedaris, I prefer to write in the morning:

Were I to leave the hotel without writing in my diary, though, I'd feel too antsy and incomplete to enjoy myself. Even if what I'm recording is of no consequence, I've got to put it down on paper.

For me, it's not so much about documenting what I observe but rather keeping track of what I'm thinking, which often stems from something I've observed. The details of what I've seen and heard, or even what I've done, matter less than the details of my mental reaction to them. I think that's why I've always been so frustrated with people whose idea of conversation is recounting their day-to-day experiences and even more so with people who demand that I recount mine. I've always been more interested in what people are thinking, not what they're doing.

I'm not so sure Sedaris, a chit-chat voyeur if I ever read one, would agree with me there. While discussing his 35-year-and-counting diary habit in "Day In, Day Out," he spent as much time reliving his own experiences as he did conversations he'd overheard, things other people had done, making their experiences his own experiences, too. It's a little like calling yourself an artist because you write about art. You're an artist because you are creating something yourself, but your creativity is completely dependent on what other people do.

If I were to focus on actions before thoughts, I'd be more interested in what's going on at my own table, but every writer is wired differently. In the end, it's not so much what inspires us as it is what it inspires us to say. While reading the works of Sedaris, I generally find the conversations he listens to far less memorable than his reactions to them.

Near the end of the chapter, he recalled a trip to a petting zoo during which a boy of around 5 years old marveled at one animal in particular.

"Have you ever seen guinea pigs so big," the boy asked. "I mean, Jesus!"

The woman offered Tyler and me an embarrassed look. "You shouldn't use the Lord's name like that, Jerry. Some people might find it offensive."

"Christ Almighty," the kid continued. "Somebody should take a picture."

The story flashed me back to something I overheard two weeks ago while I was watching the penguins on Boulders Beach in Simon's Town. As I took my own pictures, lots of them, a family of six right beside me -- a man, a woman, and their four towheaded sons -- were vocally admiring the coastal scenery, particularly the boys.

They were probably between the ages of 5 and 9 and had soft and delicate features that were enhanced by their posh British accents. They looked like they'd stepped out of a 20th-century Norman Rockwell painting, crossed the Atlantic from middle America, and time-traveled to 2014. Their father was also blond, but he was so big, burly and red-faced that I couldn't imagine him as a kid. Would these now-adorable boys grow up to look like him? They didn't much resemble their mother, who was the only silent one in the group, so it was pretty much a toss-up. She looked like she could use a daughter, if only for a distaff ally in this band of bros.

As I started walking away from the edge of the viewing pier, pondering families on holiday (How much would it cost to take your wife and four kids on a week-long trip from England to Cape Town?) and the ephemeral nature of cuteness, the youngest boy ran up to his father.

"Daddy, would you put me on your shoulders? Daddy, would you put me on your shoulders?" He said it twice, as if repetition would increase his chances of getting a lift.

"No, I need someone to carry me."

I thought it was a strange thing for a 250-pound man say to a little kid. Who was going to carry him? The kid? Was he going to suggest that the little tyke get himself a job as soon as they returned home so that he could pitch in with the family expenses?

I hate tit-for-tat in parent-child relationships. Parents should never treat their children as equals in that sense, regardless of age, but it seemed even more inappropriate with a boy who just a few years ago was as helpless as one of those baby penguins. And at least the little one hadn't taken the Lord's name in vain like the 5 year old at the petting zoo. You had to give him that. Right?

Not that the petting-zoo boy's words offended me. I forgot them a moment after I read them, but it was Sedaris's reaction to them that stuck with me.

Writing about it the following morning, I'd recall how incredulous the boy had sounded. Yes, the guinea pigs were big -- like furry slippers, sizes nine and ten and a half. They were hardly gargantuan, though. Had he possibly confused them with hamsters? The look on his face and his unexpected reaction -- evoking Jesus as a weather-beaten adult would -- were remarkable to me, and standing there in that dinky zoo, my knee throbbing, my little notebook firmly in hand, I knew I needed to keep that moment forever.

I must have wiped a tear from my eye after reading that final sentence, the last one in the chapter, the first of at least a dozen times: I knew I needed to keep that moment forever. Replace "moment" with "thought," which can define a moment as much as any dialogue, and you've nailed exactly why I write.

Thank you, David Sedaris, for so concisely and so beautifully putting it down on paper for me.

Burning Questions: Adventures in Apartment Renting in Cape Town

When did watching TV become so complicated? Now simply turning it on requires more concentration than rocket science -- and nearly as much training! Sometimes I miss the days when couch potatoes had to get off their asses to change the channel. At least you didn't need an instruction manual to figure out how to do that. In my new apartment, the landlord actually had to leave written instructions for using the TV:

DSTV: When switching the TV on, it defaults to a DVD setting because of the HDMI cabling. Simply press AUX button on the DVD remote & set to AUX 2. Then the [sic] set the SOURCE button on the TV remote to AUX 2 as well & the DSTV will be up and running. The upstairs TV is linked to the same DSTV Box and has it's own remotes upstairs.

Got that? Well forget it. It's hogwash. After nearly one week, I finally have a handle on working the upstairs television, but turning the one downstairs on and off still requires several rounds of trial and error. There are three black remotes -- one for the TV, a near-lookalike one for the DVD player (both are Samsung models), and a smaller one of the digital TV box -- and every time I look at them sitting on the coffee table, I could swear they've sprouted appendages, and they're pointing at me, mockingly. What's that sound? I can't get the volume to work, so it must be coming from them. Are they laughing at me again?

If the joke's on me, I'm certainly giving them a lot of material. When I turn off the TV with the TV remote, it turns back on when I turn off the DVD player with the DVD remote (which only works sporadically, forcing me to manually shut it on/off), then turns off again when I turn off the digital box with the DSTV. Good night? Not necessarily. When I head upstairs and turn on the upstairs TV using the larger of the two remotes on the nightstand, then turn on the digital system using the other one, I suddenly have both televisions going at the same time. If Cheaters is on, that's a lot of loud carrying on at 11pm.

The plus side of all this: The process is so frustrating that I end up watching less TV than I would if all I had to do was point and press one remote control.

Does any bachelor pad really need more than four pillows? Two pairs for the king-size bed -- one to sleep on (though my delicate neck/upper back area demands just one pillow under it), the other for decorative purposes and sleepovers, though I haven't had one of those since last July in Berlin, where my rental bed had four pillows. In my new apartment, there are six pillows on the bed upstairs, two on the three-person sofa and 10 on the day bed. Ten! Why does a daybed need 10 pillows? Where am I supposed to take an afternoon nap when the pillows are covering practically the entire daybed?

I once watched an episode of The Marriage Ref in which a frustrated husband complained about his wife's out-of-control pillow fetish, and I was completely on his side. After six on the bed (that appears to be the magic number in Cape Town luxury rentals), pillows stop being decorative and become merely clutter, no matter how pretty each individual one looks. It just supported my theory that the happiest couples are good neighbors, not annoyed roommates.

I know a lot of people are into pillows and cushions on couches, but I've never been one of them. They just create a lot of extra work because I always find myself rearranging them and re-fluffing them so that the couch has that showroom look whenever I'm not sitting on it. On the plus side, I spend more time standing and less sitting because I don't want to mess up the perfect pillow arrangement. Though it probably would be disrespectful to the owner of the apartment, who designed the pillows himself, I'm thinking about shoving them all into one of the many closets or drawers: out of sight, out of mind!

Is crime really so bad in Cape Town that you need four locks to separate you from the outside world: one on the front door to the apartment, one on the metal gate in front of the front door to the apartment, one on the front door to the apartment building, and one on the gate leading to the sidewalk? I recently had lunch with a friend who lives in a literal glass house in Johannesburg, and as he showed me photos of his pad, I wondered, Well, what about security? Then I wondered how he cools the damn thing during the summer.

That's so unlike me, putting security before surviving summer heat. I suppose that I now feel ridiculously safe when I go to sleep at night, tucked away behind two security gates and two closed and locked doors, but if I were the praying type, I'd pray that I'm never being chased home by anyone. By the time I figure out which key goes to the gate at the sidewalk, I'd probably have a gun, or a knife, shoved into my back.

Why do I never care about balconies and terraces until I don't have one? My new apartment has what is more like a ledge masquerading as a balcony, complete with green railing. If I go out to the edge, which extends less than a meter outdoors, and turn my head to the right, I have a view of the trees that line the block and Table Mountain in the near distance. Push back the trees that line the block several meters and extend the "balcony" farther out, and it would be the perfect spot to spend an afternoon writing.

Only I'd probably never do that. I can count on one hand the number of times I used my balcony in Buenos Aires, and one of them was to scream for help below after my apartment was robbed and the burglars locked me inside. (If only I'd had four locks separating me from the outside world there!) In Bangkok, I had two, and I never used them unless I was trying to impress a date with my view or doing laundry (the washing machine was located on the living room balcony). In my recent rentals in Rome and Tel Aviv, I used the balconies sporadically, usually out of guilt because I knew some people would kill for my views to a thrill.

Now I'd kill for that little bit of extra outdoor space, though I'm pretty sure someone would lose their life for naught because I'd probably never use it.

What is the difference between turning on and off the switch that powers the hot water and just leaving it on full-time? To be honest, I'd never seen this kind of set-up before I arrived in my rental in Rome, where I never actually used it, energy-saving instructions be damned, though in Tel Aviv I tried to change my negligent ways. I haven't been able to escape it since.

I don't really understand how turning the switch off saves energy. Is energy being used to heat the water when no water is being used? And since it takes a good 15 minutes for the water to heat up after turning on the switch, if I were the type to remember to turn it off after every shower and leave that as its default mode, it would put a cramp in my spontaneity. No more hopping into the shower on the spur of the moment and being ready to go in 15 minutes flat -- not that I've ever actually done that.

Am I going to spend the next year obsessing over how much electricity I'm using? According to Etienne, the real estate agent who arranged my one-year rental agreement, it's customary in Cape Town for energy to be rationed using the same pre-paid pay-as-you-go system employed by Internet and mobile-phone service providers. There's a meter that tells you how much energy your account has (in rands), and when you start running dangerously low, you top up at various shops and outlets around town, just as you would with your smart phone and modem. Etienne recommended keeping a reserve voucher on hand, just in case I run out in the middle of the night and don't feel like going to the 24-hour convenience store down the road.

Being the neurotic and obsessive person that I am, this means checking the meter that's tucked away in a top shelf in the kitchen multiple times a day to see how wasteful or frugal I'm being. So far, I'm averaging less than 20 rand (which is just under $2) a day. That's pretty damn good, considering that I have an AC, and I'm not afraid to use it. But I'd probably be willing to pay twice that amount for the luxury of receiving a monthly bill in the mail and never having to think about it again.

Would it be terrible of me to hire a housekeeper to drop by and clean up after me once a week? Unless housekeeping service is included in the rental deal (which was the case in Bangkok, in Melbourne, in Buenos Aires last year, and in Cape Town Quarters, the guest house where I stayed during my first five weeks in Cape Town), I've always felt uncomfortable with the idea of hiring help. But then, I haven't lived in an apartment quite this large since I spent October of 1991 to October of 1992 calling Jersey City, New Jersey, home and three other people my roommates. (I've been living on my own ever since.) That place, which included two bathrooms and four bedrooms over two storeys, could have used a professional cleaning touch!

I'm thinking of calling up Trish, the young lady who cleaned my apartment in Cape Town Quarters every Monday. She did give me her number on the day that I moved out and told me to call her anytime. And she has a baby daughter in Johannesburg, so she could use the extra cash. But then I'd have to start planning my weeks so that I'm not at home during the same hours every week, and frankly, I could live without the hassle. With this whole energy meter thing keeping me up at night (well, not really, but it's the first thing I check when I wake up), I already have enough on my mind.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Blacks Like Me: What's Missing from HBO's "Looking" (So Far) and Gay Life on TV

As reality-based gay television goes, I'd place Looking, HBO's new half-hour comedy-drama, somewhere between Boy Meets Boy (Bravo's gay twist on The Bachelor that ran for six episodes in 2003 and featured as one of the suitors the actor who took over for Alison Sweeney as Sami Brady, aka Stan, on Days of Our Lives during her first maternity leave in 2005), and Michael's relatively tame (and lame) storylines on the U.S. version of Queer As Folk. To my gay sensibility, the conversations and sexual escapades of the three main characters in the debut episode, which premiered on January 19, were more or less believable, if hardly revelatory or stimulating (mentally or erotically).

Glee's Jonathan Groff is charming and believable as the lead, Patrick, a hopeless romantic who is still in the process of getting comfortable in his gay skin. Sure someone that good-looking probably wouldn't be so awkward and insecure, but Groff is talented enough to sell Patrick's near-crippling diffidence. I believe him.

His two best friends -- one short and Cuban (Agustín), one tall and all-American (Dom), both attractive in their individual way -- represent the sort of gay men you actually encounter in real life (ones with facial hair and imperfect bodies), not the waxed and plucked cookie-cutter specimens that usually populate television and movies. I spent much of the first episode wondering why I can't meet a 40ish guy who looks like Murray Bartlett (the Australian actor who plays Dom) in real life, but the truth is, I see guys who look like him all the time here in the real world.

Looking is probably destined to face criticism that gay men in its version of San Francisco, traditionally known as the gay capital of the U.S., are too shallow and sex-obsessed. But let's face it: So are many gay men here in the real world. Even the ones who aren't will probably see some of their friends, if not themselves, in Patrick, Agustín and Dom. I've never gone looking for a hand job in a public park or lived with a boyfriend, but I can pretty much relate to everything else that happened to them in the first episode, from Patrick's adventures in online dating to Dom's concerns about his loss of youth to Agustín's threesome with his boyfriend and a colleague (except in my version, I'm the guest star).

While Looking's depiction of everyday gay life is promising, I have mixed feelings about its take on gay diversity. In gay life according to Looking so far, the only shades are white and beige, which, at least, is slightly less pale than usual. Agustín and the actor who plays him, Frankie J. Álvarez, are both Latino, and O.T. Fagbenle, the British actor who plays Agustín's boyfriend, is half black (via his Nigerian dad).

Add the Asian-American actor who popped up briefly as one of Patrick's colleagues and the dreadlocked black extra in the club scenes, and you've got the closest thing I've ever seen on gay TV to a rainbow stew, albeit one with extra-mild seasoning. There's no mistaking what you're looking at when you're looking at Looking: a white canvas with splashes of color. It's a darker shade of pale, reflecting a gay community where people of color could easy pull a Pinky/Imitation of Life and pass for white.

In a way, I get why gay black men as sexy, sexual entities and not just as stereotypical comic relief have been so invisible on TV up to now. I can't say how things in the United States are now, but during the 15 years that I lived in New York City, to be gay and black meant being largely invisible to the white gay majority. Gay white men sought out other gay white (or Latino) men, and so did the majority of gay black men I encountered.

It wasn't until I moved to Buenos Aires that I felt like gay men actually noticed me when I walked into a room. It wasn't so much about me as it was about my exoticism in that part of the world: People in Argentina rarely see black people, so when they do, it's practically an event. Shortly after I moved to BA in 2006, I went out a few times with a 31-year-old guy named Hernan who revealed that I was the first black person he'd ever had a conversation with in his entire life. And he'd spent an entire year living in Washington D.C.!

In Melbourne and Bangkok, the reaction to me was pretty much the same, with minor variations on a theme: "Is it true what they say about black men?" Too many guys were mostly interested in finding out if the myth about black men was accurate; too few were interested in me as a human being. In Cape Town, a city with scores of gay black men, they are pretty much as invisible in gay-village life as they were in the United States. Apartheid lives on in Cape Town's gay community, sometimes by choice, sometimes out of habit. I went to a house party last weekend, and predictably, I was the only black guy in the room. I would have thought I was back in Melbourne had the balcony's ocean and Table Mountain views not been so stunning.

But here's the thing: I was at that party, on that balcony, a face in that crowd. Here, there and everywhere I go -- in Cape Town, in Bangkok, in Melbourne, in Buenos Aires, in New York City, and in all of the places in between -- there's always at least one gay black man in the room, and every other gay black man on the planet, even in the whitest corners of it, has the same experience on a daily basis. Yet gay life on TV is always so white-washed, even on shows set in major cities with significant black populations, even in Looking's San Francisco, a racially diverse city that's right across the San Francisco Bay from Oakland, which has a black population of 28 percent.

Why does homosexuality always have to be depicted on TV as being so Caucasian? I can live with all-white and mostly white casts, which, to the credit of TV's powers that be, are not nearly as prevalent as they were a decade ago. I've been living with them my entire life due to the assumptions by many network executives that white people are who the most-desired demographics want to see most on TV. But must so many of them be like Hernan, living in totally white-washed worlds, even when they're in cities that are full of black people (as Hernan was during his stint in D.C.).

Usually, at some point, a token black is thrown into the mix. At least one main character on three of the whitest series ever, Friends, Sex and City and Girls, dated a black person. On Friends it took nine seasons, on Sex and the City, it took three seasons and five episodes. On Girls, it happened at the beginning of season two.

Looking already has bested them all by including a biracial boyfriend in its first episode, but when he's played by an actor whose fair complexion and close-cropped hair make him passable as a Latino, an Arab or even a white guy with a very nice tan, and he's swimming in a sea of white and Latino castmates and extras, it feels less like a matter-of-fact representation of black gayness and genuine inclusiveness than a safe political safety net.

I would love to have been a fly on the wall during the casting meetings. When  the series' co-executive producer Andrew Haigh recently told HuffPost Live, "We have an African-American character," presumably referring to the one played by Fagbenle, a half-white Brit cast in lieu of an actual African-American, Haigh, who is also British, inadvertently revealed a lack of awareness and inclusive-mindedness that extends to the show. Did they go with Fagbenle because he was best for the job or because he was the right shade of light brown (i.e., more palatable to the white masses)? Haigh's touting of "an African-American character" would have carried more weight if that role were played by someone who looks the part. (Judging solely from his appearance and his version of an American accent, I assumed Fagbenle was Latino -- until I looked him up on Wikipedia.)

Onscreen when Patrick points out that the Latino barber who hits on him on the BART is not his type (he goes for the Ivy League guy, presumably white), when Dom, whose ex is a real-estate agent named Ethan Roberts (Could he be any more white? as Chandler Bing might ask), makes a statement like "I have to find some blond slut to help me regain my self-respect," it's clear where their priorities and preferences lie. One has to wonder why it has to be written into the script.

Interracial gay relationships are no less commonplace than interracial straight relationships in real life, yet it seems we only get straight ones on TV. Other than Will Truman's four-episode flirtation with a guy played by Taye Diggs (a fine actor who is unmistakably black) during the eighth season of Will & Grace, and David Fisher's longtime companionship with Keith on Six Feet Under, black-and-white gay romance has always been unrepresented to under-represented on TV. And don't get me started on the likelihood of seeing two black men in bed together.

General Hospital has just launched an unlikely gay love triangle featuring a white doctor, a black nurse and an Asian lab technician. The black nurse, Felix, has been onscreen for two years, the Asian lab technician, Brad, for roughly one, and the white doctor, Lucas, for a little more than one week. Guess which two shared the show's first steamy gay kiss last week.

That's right, not Felix, who has spent most of his two years on the show being the stereotypical gay best friend, offering advice on love and accessories as only a gay BFF can, dropping pop-cultural references, butting into the romantic lives of his straight friends and lusting after heterosexual men. He's still waiting to see some real romantic action. Brad and Lucas beat him to it.

Felix might spend most of his time on the periphery of his straight friends' love lives, but that's just him. I've never met a gay black man like that. I've got my own life. I may offer romantic advice to my straight friends. I may drop pop-cultural references. I even might lust after a straight man or two. (Be still, my beating heart, the next time Tom Hardy is onscreen.) But that's where the similarities between my life and Felix's life end. I go out. I date. I have sex. I fall in love. Even when white folks can't see me, I'm still there.

So don't believe everything you don't see on TV.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Why I Care Even Less About This Year's GRAMMY Awards Than Usual

What's up with the Academies?

Last year one of them, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, chose for its Best Picture, a film directed by a man whom the members didn't see fit to honor with so much as a Best Director nomination. I suppose that Argo, a film that scored a Best Supporting Actor nod for Alan Arkin among its seven total nominations and three wins, made itself. Ben Affleck didn't have a thing to do with it.

Not to be outdone, this year the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, which is set to hand out the 56th annual GRAMMY Awards on Sunday, January 26, wants to tell me that a 17-year-old newcomer whose breakthrough single netted her Record of the Year, Song of the Year and Best Pop Solo Performance nominations to go with her Best Pop Vocal Album nod (for her debut, Pure Heroine) doesn't rank as of its five Best New Artists?

Nothing against the five Best New Artist GRAMMY nominees -- James Blake, Kendrick Lamar, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, Kacey Musgraves and Ed Sheeran -- all of whom are talented, credible contenders, but Lorde really should demand a recount. Macklemore & Ryan Lewis aside, no one who made the cut had a 2013 single that was anywhere near as huge as Lorde's "Royals," which spent nine weeks at No. 1 on Billboard's Hot 100.

But it's not just about chart rankings. Lorde, a Kiwi who has put New Zealand on the pop map for the first time since Crowded House's Neil Finn (I know, Kimbra -- but "Someone That I Used to Know" was really all about Gotye) and arguably New Zealand's biggest female musical export since Kiri Ti Kanawa, is a true pop rarity: a teenager making quality, sophisticated music that she'll still be able to be proud of in 10 years.

Straddling the mainstream and the cutting edge while wading in electronic, hip-hop and trip-hop waters, Pure Heroine is just as much of a pop anomaly: a critically acclaimed commercial success that's worthy of its four-star accolades. Sometimes I could swear I hear a touch of Fiona Apple in her voice, which only makes me love her more.

Even better than Pure Heroine: The Love Club EP, which was released last March and is more alterna-pop ("Million Dollar Bills," not to be confused with Whitney Houston's "Million Dollar Bill," sounds like Bow Wow Wow without the Burundi drums), less Lana Del Rey than its full-length follow-up

Despite her chart success (this week, "Team" becomes her second Top 10 hit on Billboard's Hot 100) and critical plaudits, I'd dare say that Lorde hasn't gotten enough credit. She's a teen pop star who manages to sound at once youthfully naive and preternaturally seasoned. She can appeal to the masses without having to flash so much as a naked shoulder. Sex sells, but not for her. She doesn't have to twerk or swing nude on a wrecking ball to be noticed. Her music stands on its own, spare but fully clothed.

The GRAMMY voters obviously appreciated her enough to nominate her for four major awards. Did they forget to shortlist her for Best New Artist because she sounds like an accomplished veteran who's been making music for years? I'd like to say yes, but considering that at least one past Best New Artist winner -- 2001's Shelby Lynne -- was 32 years old, a decade into her recording career and on her sixth studio album when she took the prize, the Academy is not above giving this particular award to accomplished veterans who have been making music for years. It's just another one of those GRAMMY mysteries, like one-hit wonder Starland Vocal Band's 1977 Best New Artist win over Boston and The Brothers Johnson or Milli Vanilli's 1990 triumph in the same category, that nobody can explain.

On the plus side, if Lorde wins Record of the Year, she'll be the second New Zealander in two years to do so. (Kimbra also shared Best Pop Duo/Group Performance with Gotye for "Someone That I Used to Know" last year.) But even if she has little chance of besting the stiff competition in any of her four categories on Sunday, she can already thank GRAMMY's egregious Best New Artist oversight that she'll never have to worry about being another Starland Vocal Band.

The Best of Lorde (Her Six Best Songs)

6. "400 Lux" (from Pure Heroine)

5. "Biting Down" (from The Love Club EP)

4. "Tennis Court" (from Pure Heroine)

3. "Million Dollar Bills" (from The Love Club EP)

2. "The Love Club" (from The Love Club EP)

1. "Team" (from Pure Heroine)

Friday, January 24, 2014

I Need Some Fine Wine, And You, You Need to Just Order!

One of the most noticeable differences between me in my early 20s and me on the cusp of 45 is how specific some my friends have become, especially during meals. I like to think of myself as being pretty easygoing when it comes to food -- if you serve it, I'll probably eat it, even Ramen Noodles, one of the few things I can prepare on my own -- but in that regard, I'm often a party of one.

I remain resolutely a non-foodie. I don't cook. I can't cook... much. It's been at least 20 years since I tried to please anyone in the kitchen with food. I haven't bought table salt, or anything else that would be considered seasoning, in centuries. I've never tasted coffee, so maybe it wouldn't be much of a surprise that I have no idea how to prepare it. And I wouldn't know a "coffee plunger" if I woke up next to one.

That was one of the items on the inventory list for my new Cape Town apartment. Checking things off was particularly challenging because I couldn't identify so many of the appliances by name. Should I know the difference between a "paring knife" and a "peeling knife"? Have I ever seen an "egg lifter," and how does it differ from a regular "lifter"? Are "trivets" those metal things on which you place scalding pots and pans?

I've never baked a chicken in my life, not because I don't know how to shove a bird into the oven but because I wouldn't know how to begin to season it. I've always thought I make the best scrambled eggs in the world, with nothing more than two or three eggs and a little butter, but would anyone else want to eat them? The last person to cook for me, last Sunday morning, made me doubt my breakfast-making skill for the first time by scrambling the eggs he made for us with curry (yum).

There are so many palates. How do I know how much spice is too much, too little, just right? I can pour a killer glass of white wine or mix a vodka tonic that'll please just about anyone, but I've heard enough mixed reviews of the same meal to know better than to try to cater to the wildly divergent tastes of finicky eaters.

Oh, to be a 21-year-old University of Florida journalism major again. Life and lunch was so much easier then. When my friend Maureen and I were UF students in Gainesville, we shared a favorite activity: going out to eat. And we did it often. It was the perfect time to multitask: You could catch up on all of latest while satisfying one of the basic human needs. If you were lucky, as we were one Saturday afternoon when we went to Cafe Gardens for lunch, you might even spot future two-time Oscar nominee Woody Harrelson across the room, heading to the toilet.

Another great thing about going to lunch with friends when we were in our early 20s was that everyone was so easygoing when it came to food. Many of my friends back then were vegetarians (though I didn't eat red meat or chicken, I had to have my scrambled eggs and my fish, especially salmon), yet we never seemed to have any trouble finding menus that were agreeable to everyone. When we took a road trip to New Orleans for Mardi Gras during my senior year, we probably expended more energy on deciding what our next drink would be (and where it would be) than on figuring out what we were having for lunch or dinner. (Obviously, we slept in, right through breakfast.)

Once we were seated, whether in Gainesville, New Orleans or some spring-break destination, there was no haggling over ingredients or talk of allergies and lactose intolerance. Maybe we were still too young to know exactly which foods didn't agree with our bodies. Maybe we were still so poor that we were happy just to be eating out. We devoured pretty much anything that fell within our culinary limits, and we usually loved it. (God, I wonder how those beloved big breakfasts at Skeeters on 13th Street in Gainesville -- half a dozen scrambled eggs, hash browns loaded with ketchup and biscuits the size of volleyballs -- would go over with my friends today.)

I don't know when things changed, but change they did. Somewhere around my late 20s, the ordering stage of group meals started to feel more like contract negotiations. Everyone seemed to have their special non-negotiables, certain things they couldn't eat. "Is this good?" someone would consult the waiter as if one taste fit all. All of the fine print had to be carefully examined and explained before a decision was made.

"Okay, I'll have the Pomeranian beef-filet with juniper turnip cabbage and mushrooms. But hold the cabbage. And the mushrooms. Hell, while you're at it, hold the Pomeranian, too. I don't want to have to sit through a barking dinner."

There was an episode of Sex and the City in which Carrie was having dinner with Berger and Charlotte (who had just ditched her date), and Carrie made an elaborate list of requests when ordering, including the biggie: no parsley. She couldn't just leave it at "no parsley." She had to instruct the waiter to tell the kitchen not to even sprinkle it on the plate ("I'm just really allergic"), and while he was at it, find out if the marinade for the tuna has any parsley in it -- "Because if it does, I should probably change my order." When Berger, frustrated as I was, pointed out that she wasn't even allergic to parsley, their pre-break-up fight ensued. It was the only time I ever understood where Berger was coming from.

It's a good thing he never went out with David, the British guy I dated in Bangkok who had the oddest, most arbitrary food hang-ups. For instance, he could eat tomato sauce and cooked tomatoes, but the idea of putting raw tomato slices into his mouth freaked him out. So did olives, black and white ones. Grapefruit was another no-no. On our first date, I had to drink one of his happy-hour cocktails because the bartender included a splash of grapefruit juice, which he decided didn't agree with his taste buds after our round arrived. On another date, when he ordered a chicken mushroom dish, I jokingly reminded him that he didn't like mushrooms, though he'd never told me anything of the sort.

"Oh, yeah, that's right," he said and called the waiter back. "Will you please hold the mushrooms, too?"

When we broke up, just as he was entering a one-week vegetarian phase, I was relieved, if only because I'd never again have to hear about his dietary restrictions.

I'm not saying that they're never conducive to a happy meal. Now that my best friend Lori is a vegan, she is one of my favorite people to eat with (along with Cara, who knows an excellent grilled-salmon selection when she sees it). Not only is Lori always excellent company, but her switch from vegetarianism to veganism a little more than a year ago has changed everything. Her vow of non-carnivorism and her eschewing of all things dairy mean that once we find a restaurant in which she can eat, her options are so severely limited that there's absolutely no agonizing over the menu.

During the three days I spent with her and her husband in Tuscany last September that meant slight pangs of guilt over my myriad choices, but I'd chose those over the frustration of trying to find a vegetarian restaurant in Bangkok, which as we found out when she visited me there two years ago, can be a bigger challenge than trying to catch a whiff of good air, which, by the way, is an impossible pursuit in Buenos Aires, despite the fact that the name of the city literally means "good airs." The next time Lori and I hang out there, I know a fantastic Asian-run vegetarian restaurant right off the corner of Borges and Paraguay that she'll just love.

It's a cafeteria-style set-up where you walk through with your plastic container and fill it up with whatever catches your appetite. That means it's up to one of the workers to explain what everything is. Last year when I spent seven weeks in BA, I stayed in an apartment right next to the vegetarian restaurant, and not once did I trouble anyone with having to identify what I was adding to my lunch box. As long as it looked edible, I'd pile it in. With the exception of snails, rodents and anything with more than four legs, I'll try anything twice. Trial and error is the spice of life.

Of course, I wasn't about to say anything like that back when I was living in BA, and someone from the U.S. who didn't speak Spanish was in town. I'd often find myself at Green Bamboo or La Cabrera (my first and second favorite restaurants in the city), struggling to translate words on the menu that I'd never bothered to learn because once I re-introduced red meat and chicken back into my menu after 17 years without either, I would eat pretty much anything, even if I didn't know what it was.

Most of my visitors, though, had to know the details of every single ingredient listed. I never really understood this, but like I said, I'm no foodie, and I live to keep it simple. I've always mentally filed main courses under chicken, meat, fish, pasta and salad. It doesn't really matter to me how the chicken is accessorized. I tend to not notice accessories when Best Actress Oscar nominees are wearing them on the red carpet, and I also tend to not notice them when they're in my food.

Had I lived in China when I was 22, my friends would have visited me, and we probably would have ordered from menus entirely in Mandarin, not having any idea what we were getting, and it wouldn't have mattered. As long as they got our drink orders right.

And thank God for drink orders that translate to pretty much the same thing no matter where you are in the world. If you order a "Jack and Coke" in Buenos Aires, in Melbourne, in Bangkok, in Berlin, in Rome, in Tel Aviv and in Cape Town, you'll get pretty much the same thing. And they make the best dinner dates. I never feel like a third wheel when I'm having dinner with Jack and Coke. They'll soak up anything, and give me enough of them, and I'll totally tune out everyone's list of demands. I probably won't remember to ask the waiter to hold the garlic (the one food I'm allergic to) either.

"And what can I get for you sir?"

"Surprise me."

Don't worry. I'll enjoy it now and pay later.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

10 Reasons Why I Love Sami Brady (and Alison Sweeney) on "Days of Our Lives"

Yesterday, what began as a very sunny week indeed (I finally moved into my permanent Cape Town digs!) suddenly got a little overcast with one major announcement: After 21 years of playing Sami Brady on the daytime soap Days of Our Lives, Alison Sweeney will be leaving at the end of the year to pursue other interests, mainly enjoying her family (which includes her husband, David Sanov, a soon-to-be-9-year-old son and a 5-year-old daughter) and presumably continuing to host The Biggest Loser, which she's done since 2007.

She made the announcement on January 20 (14 days after her 21st Days anniversary) on Ellen, and I'm not sure why she decided to tell us so far in advance. From personal experience and the experience of her former onscreen son Chandler Massey, who had just won his second consecutive Daytime Emmy Award last June when he announced that he was leaving Days at the end of 2013 but ended up getting the boot months earlier when Guy Wilson was hired to replace him, I know that the more notice you give, the longer your soon-to-be former employer has to screw with you for daring to leave.

I'm glad, however, that she has given me so much time to prepare for her exit, and since Days tapes months in advance, she'll likely be onscreen through the spring of 2015 -- unless the producers pull what they pulled on Massey, which seems unlikely considering that Sweeney is the show's biggest star. Sorry, "Doc," aka Marlena Evans (Deirdre Hall).

Sami was the reason I became a semi-religious Days fan in late 2004. (It's now my favorite soap.) I'd watched it intermittently over the years, and I knew the names of the major players (Marlena, Roman, Bo, Hope, Patch, Kayla, Victor Kiriakis, etc.), but I don't believe I sat through an entire episode until one Sunday night when I returned to New York City after a work trip to Los Angeles, and SoapNet was airing the week's episodes back to back.

From the minute Sami appeared onscreen, I was in love, with the character and the actress. She was doing all of the soapy things I adore -- scheming, eavesdropping, talking to herself -- all in the same scene. Sweeney was about to give birth to her first child at the time, and since her pregnancy wasn't written into Sami's story, she was dressed in an oversized button-down shirt and shot from her shoulders up. I wanted to climb into my TV screen and start plotting right along with her.

I don't really remember exactly what she was going on about. It had something to do with keeping her man at the time, Lucas Roberts (now Lucas Horton), and outwitting his equally formidable mother, Kate. In the years since then, she's gone to Iraq dressed as a man (during her first maternity leave when her character was played by a male actor), given birth to three children (in addition to her and Lucas's son, Will, who was born when they were both teens), watched one child die (who turned out not to be hers, after all), gotten arrested numerous times, shot the father of two of her kids in the head, shot a guy who was about to cut off her ex-husband's penis (no joke!), lied, schemed, made love and repeat. What's not to love?

Nothing, that's what. But since I'm obsessed with quantifying everything, here are 10 reasons why I love her more today than I did when I first laid eyes on her a decade ago.

She talks to herself (and to passed out exes). I could spend an entire Days hour listening to one of Sami's internal monologues.

She handles her men. Nick Fallon didn't stand a chance.

She has the cutest kids. But is little Johnny ever going to grow up?

She'll put someone else's bratty kid in her place! Meanwhile, teaching a soap diva-in-training how it's done.

She loves her gay son. Sami's reaction when Will came out -- she was upset mostly because he hadn't confided in her before -- was eerily similar to my mom's reaction when I came out.

She takes (and gives) it on the cheek. Just once, though, I'd love to see Sami bitch slap Kate back. She certainly has it coming.

She's a straight shooter. Rule No. 1: If Sami Brady has the keys to your mansion, sleep with one eye open. And don't leave a gun lying around.

She'll kill for the people she loves. If a crooked cop ever enters my hospital room while I'm recovering from a near-fatal assault, I hope Sami Brady is hiding in the bathroom.

If she loves you, she's got your back. Even if she doesn't happen to have a gun conveniently stashed in her purse.

Nobody knows the trouble she's seen. Well, everybody does because she'll never let them forget.

Monday, January 20, 2014

8 Random Thoughts I Had While Watching "The Wolf of Wall Street"

1. I never noticed it until the opening scene of The Wolf of Wall Street when Leonardo DiCaprio as pirate-stockbroker mogul and all-around bad nice guy Jordan Belfort tosses a "little person" at a money board: DiCaprio, with his over-exaggerated facial expressions, has the kind of slightly mannered manic acting style that would have played particularly well in 1940s Hollywood. I would love to see him in a remake of The Lost Weekend, the 1945 film that won Ray Milland the Best Actor Oscar for what is one of my all-time favorite male performances. DiCaprio does great work, but his performances always look like performances. You can see the stitching and the seams. Or are my eyes playing tricks on me? Does he never quite disappear into his roles for me simply because I'm just too familiar with his celebrity?

To finally win an Oscar, will he need to literally disappear into a character by altering his physical appearance the way fellow Best Actor nominees Matthew McConaughey (The Dallas Buyers Club) and Christian Bale (American Hustle) did playing crooked salesmen like Belfort in their respective films. And I'm not talking about that terrible old-man make-up that Clint Eastwood made him wear in J. Edgar. Is that what it will take to make me forget that I'm watching DiCaprio act? As long as he doesn't turn into Johnny Depp, who I think will finally win his Oscar when he stops hiding behind hair and make-up, I'd like to see DiCaprio onscreen and not see DiCaprio onscreen.

2. DiCaprio, who turns 40 later this year, is aging a lot better than I thought. In the early scenes, I totally buy him as a 22-year-old Wall Street upstart, which could very well be as much a testament to good lighting and good acting (he nails the awestruck eager-to-learn/please neophyte in the lunch scene with Matthew McConaughey) as good genes and a great hairline.

3. Matthew McConaughey has a star shtick (cocky but lovable good old boy), and it serves him well in his one big scene in Wolf. His American hustler here lacks the depth of the Dallas Buyers Club hustler that scored him his first Oscar nomination (he is, after all, only onscreen for a few minutes), but he's entertaining as hell.

4. Last year, DiCaprio failed to get a Best Supporting Actor nomination for playing Django Unchained's sadistic plantation owner, who was actually a lot like the sadistic plantation owner in 12 Years a Slave that got Michael Fassbender a Best Supporting Actor nod this year. Conversely, this year DiCaprio scored his third Best Actor nod (and fourth overall) for playing the sort of debauched-guy-in-the-Big Apple role that inexplicably failed to get Michael Fassbender a Best Actor nomination for Shame two years ago.

Although we don't get a full-frontal view of DiCaprio, Wolf might be even more sexually graphic than Shame. But unlike Fassbender's sex addict, there's little torment in Belfort's vices, largely because they're mostly played for laughs. (The one cock shot seems like it could have wandered into the movie from one of the American Pie films.) Aside from Belfort's big showdown with his second wife Naomi, it's not played as dark stuff, which some might argue is a glorification of very bad things, but I suspect that might be what made Wolf's X-rated antics palatable enough to the Academy for it to score multiple Oscar nominations, including Best Picture.

5. Did Jonah Hill gain back all of that weight he lost for 21 Jump Street? I'm liking him a lot more here than I thought I would. The big Quaalude scene is priceless, and I'm actually more impressed by Hill's work in those sequences than I am by DiCaprio's hammy overacting. Hill certainly deserves his Best Supporting Actor nomination for Wolf more than he did the one he pretty much had handed to him for playing another sidekick to a superstar (Brad Pitt) in Moneyball two years ago.

6. I love Rob Reiner as DiCaprio's dad, especially in the telephone scene when he's faking a fake British accent. I wish he'd act more.

7. Emmy winner Kyle Chandler has appeared in three Best Picture nominees in the last two years (Argo, Zero Dark Thirty, Wolf of Wall Street), but his big-screen roles feel so interchangeable. No wonder the former Friday Night Lights star soon will be heading back to TV in a 13-episode Netflix drama. He's a great actor with leading man looks, so why can't a good director find him something bigger to do? His one-on-one with DiCaprio on Belfort's yacht is so full subtext and innuendo. It plays almost like a pick-up scene, and I can't tell if Chandler's FBI agent is falling for Belfort's charm. Brilliance.

8. The movie feels almost like Trainspotting for the rich and ruthless. But unlike the 1996 London underbelly classic (and herein lies the film's main problem), the characters never really pulled me in. I enjoyed the film, but at a distance, removed from the main characters and the story. It's hard to become invested in people with no redeeming qualities who are almost caricatures of irresponsible. Sometimes I found myself wishing I could be out shopping with Belfort's second wife Naomi instead of hanging out with Belfort and his pack of rabid wolves.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Alive Again: 10 Greatest Posthumous Hits

I'm still smarting a little from Oscar's snubbing of Enough Said's late James Gandolfini yesterday in the Best Supporting Actor category. What does the Academy have against dead people anyway? Only four have been nominated in my lifetime: Network's Peter Finch for Best Actor, Greystroke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes' Sir Ralph Richardson for Best Supporting Actor, Il Postino's Massimo Troissi for Best Actor, and The Dark Knight's Heath Ledger for Best Supporting Actor. Only Finch and Ledger continue (presumably, hopefully) to rest in peace as Academy Award winners following the most crushing loss for their fans.

Does Oscar have a bias in favor of living people, particularly living women? (Only one female, 1929 Best Actress nominee Jeanne Eagels, has been nominated posthumously, while the six male nominees after death include James Dean, whose two Best Actor citations, for East of Eden and Giant, came after his death in September of 1955.) Once I set aside my conspiracy theorist tendencies, it becomes more clear that the lack of acting nominees in any given year who also would qualify for the In Memorian section has less to do with bias and more to do with the fortunate fact that the top film performers of any given year are usually still alive and kicking when the Oscar nominations are announced.

Still, the music industry tends to be considerably more generous to the dead. In 2005, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences awarded the Album of the Year Grammy to Genius Loves Company by Ray Charles, who had died in June of 2004 at age 73. No one would ever accuse Charles' duets album of ranking anywhere near the caliber of Charles's classic work, and had he been alive to see its release, it probably would have been greeted with considerably less fanfare and possibly would have been regarded as a last-ditch grasp for commercial relevance by association with contemporary stars.

Unfortunately, the bottom line remains the music industry's primary concern when dealing with deceased stars. Record labels often have appeared to be more interested in cashing in on the increased goodwill of mourning fans than contributing to the legacy of a talent taken too soon (see Michael Jackson's Michael or Drake's long-rumored Aaliyah resurrection).

Then there are the rare posthumous releases that transcend business principles and make us even sadder that the artists are gone, ones like soon-to-be Rock and Roll Hall of Famers Nirvana, whose MTV Unplugged in New York, released in November of 1994, seven months after the death of frontman Kurt Cobain, captured a haunting quiet desperation that previously had frequently been buried under layers of murky grunge. It's the trio's most enduring work, and I consider us all lucky to be blessed with its existence in both aural and visual form.

Unfortunately, for too many of the other great posthumous releases, the recordings will have to do on their own, for we'll never get the opportunity to experience them performed live. Here are nine more musical statements made in life but delivered after death that made parting such an even sweeter sorrow.

Sam Cooke (1931-1964) "A Change Is Gonna Come" (from Ain't That Good News, 1964)

Otis Redding (1941-1967) (Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay" (from Dock of the Bay, 1968)

Janis Joplin (1943-1970) "Move Over" (from Pearl, 1971)

Elvis Presley (1935-1977) "Loving Arms" (from Guitar Man, 1981)

John Lennon (1940-1980) "Nobody Told Me" (from Milk and Honey, 1984)

Jim Reeves (1923-1964) and Patsy Cline (1931-1982) "Have You Ever Been Lonely?" (from Greatest Hits of Jim Reeves & Patsy Cline, 1982)

Marvin Gaye (1939-1984) "Sanctified Lady" (from Dream of a Lifetime, 1985)

Roy Orbison (1936-1988) "She's a Mystery to Me" (from Mystery Girl, 1989)

Eva Cassidy (1963-1996) "Songbird" (from Songbird, 1998)

Friday, January 17, 2014

15 Thoughts on the 2014 Oscar Nominations (for 2013 Films)

1. This year Oscar spread the love a bit thinner than usual in the acting categories. Of all the acting nominees, only three -- Gravity's Sandra Bullock and Philomena's Judi Dench in Best Actress and Captain Phillips' Barkhad Abdi in Best Supporting Actor -- represent their films solo, and those three are all in Best Picture nominees. That might partly explain the snubbing of Saving Mr. Banks' Emma Thompson, who was shortlisted by all of the major precursors, to make way for both American Hustle's Amy Adams and August: Osage County's Meryl Streep, who I presume were duking it out with Thompson for the fourth and fifth Best Actress spots.

2. A few years ago when Bradley Cooper and Jonah Hill were, respectively, The Hangover dude and the guy I was always confusing with Seth Rogen, I never would have guessed in 2014 they'd both be two-time Oscar nominees.

3. I'm not saying that the two films were creative equals, though I definitely enjoyed the less-heralded one more than I did the multiple Oscar nominee, but if 12 Years a Slave had been released in 2014 instead of last year, would the Academy have shown more love to Lee Daniels' The Butler? I was fairly certain that Oprah Winfrey at least would get a Best Supporting Actress nod, but I'm not going to complain that Blue Jasmine's Sally Hawkins, who really should have been a 2008 Best Actress nominee for Happy-Go-Lucky, stole her spot (presumably).

Personally, I would have given her Julia Roberts' place, not because I had a problem with Roberts' performance in August: Osage County but because she really should have been competing with the leading ladies. I wonder if she, not Meryl, would have made the Best Actress line-up had she campaigned in the appropriate category. Twenty years ago, when Roberts was to mainstream cinema what Jennifer Lawrence is to it today, and the Academy was taking a brief break from Streep, that would have been a no-brainer.

4. Movie songs are rarely hit singles anymore, but remember the days when you could count on at least one Best Original Song nominee being a Billboard Hot 100 hit that nearly everybody knew? Quick sing the chorus to one of this year's nominees! While I wait, let me say this: I'm glad the Academy was paying attention to that early scene in Her when The Yeah Yeah Yeahs' Karen O took over the film for a minute or two with "The Moon Song." Sadly, I don't see her beating the guys in U2, who, interestingly, were previously nominated for "The Hands That Built America" from 2002's Gangs of New York, the first Oscar-nominated Martin Scorcese-Leonardo DiCaprio collaboration, which shared a titular styling (noun-preposition-place) as well as a municipal setting (Manhattan!) with their current Oscar-nominated one, The Wolf of Wall Street.

5. The Academy really must have hated All Is Lost. Not only was Robert Redford left out of Best Actor, but Golden Globe winner Alex Ebert of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros failed to be nominated for Best Original Score.

6. I saw Amy Adams' first Best Actress citation -- for American Hustle -- coming (though I figured it would be at the expense of Meryl Streep, not Emma Thompson), but I'm pleasantly, ecstatically, surprised that Christian Bale is up for Best Actor. I think he is the most deserving nominee of the Hustle cast. This makes the second time that he and his The Fighter costar Adams are up for Oscars for appearing in the same movie and the second (consecutive) time that Silver Linings Playbook nominees Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence are, though the latter two have been demoted this year from lead to supporting, while the formers have done the opposite. (Fun fact: Amy Adams was previously nominated for Proof alongside her Best Actress competition Meryl Streep, her Julie and Julia costar who was the only one nominated for that film.)
7. Continuing along my Amy Adams train of thoughts, doesn't it seem like she's had to work a lot less hard for her five Oscar nominations than Michelle Williams had to work for her three? Both were Best Supporting Actress Oscar-nominated for the first time for 2005 performances (in Junebug and Brokeback Mountain, respectively), and after Williams landed her second consecutive Best Actress nod for My Week with Marilyn two years ago, she seemed almost destined to be either an Oscar winner by age 35 or a near-perennial nominee like Adams is now. Both are looking less likely now.

8. I'm an Amy Adams fan, but possibly Junebug aside, has she been nominated for a role that she stamped so indelibly that you just couldn't imagine anyone else pulling it off? I could have seen a number of actresses in Adams' shoes in Doubt, The Fighter, The Master and American Hustle, but Adams is the only actress I can imagine getting Oscar nominations for all four. Does she benefit from being a director's favorite who keeps getting cast in "prestige" films? Her last three nominations have been for performances in Best Picture contenders, and aside from the year she got her first nod for Junebug, she's always been one of at least three nominees from the film for which she's nominated.

9. One other Amy Adams thing: She's the only Best Actress nominee who isn't a previous winner. The two who have won Best Actress -- Bullock and Streep -- were supposed to costar in the 2005 film Prime and once famously made out onstage after tying for the Critics Choice Best Actress award. Meanwhile, former Best Supporting Actress winners Blanchett and Dench, who were both nominated for costarring in 2006's Notes on a Scandal, both have been nominated for playing Queen Elizabeth I, the role that brought Dench her win for Shakespeare in Love in 1999, the year Blanchett was Best Actress-nominated for the first time for Elizabeth. (Oh, and incidentally, there goes Leonardo DiCaprio, Blanchett's fellow Oscar nominee in The Aviator, the film for which she won Best Supporting Actress in 2005, in Best Actor.)

10. Poor Jeremy Renner. Of American Hustle's five major players, he's the only one who was never in the Oscar discussion (therefore it's not really a snub that he was the only one not nominated), which probably has more to do with the fact that Mayor Polito was the movie's least showy character, reacting to the story rather than driving it. Going into the film, he already had two Oscar nominations (one in the lead category, one in supporting), so I guess we can think of Hustle as Bale's and Cooper's chance to play catch-up.

11. This is the second year in a row that a Best Picture nominee directed by a Best Director nominee (Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle's David O. Russell) has also landed nominations in each of the acting categories. Has that ever happened before? Apparently, Russell is an actor's best bet to get nominated. Are you reading this, still-un-nominated Dennis Quaid, Donald Sutherland, Ewan McGregor, Richard Gere and Cameron Diaz?

12. Is the Academy officially over Tom Hanks? He was snubbed for not one, but two performances this year. Saving Mr. Banks is understandable, considering that he was never a main contender, and the movie was overlooked in all of the major categories (though its music was recognized in Best Original Score), but the Captain Phillips omission is harder to ignore. The film's Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay nominations as well as Barkhad Abdi's Best Supporting Actor nod indicate that the members of the Academy liked the movie itself but Hanks, maybe not so much. Did they see those final scenes? (By the way, couldn't the people in the audience for the nominations announcement have pretended to be a little bit more enthusiastic about Abdi's nomination? Maybe since it was the first one announced, they were still waking up.)

13. Can someone please explain how Blue Is the Warmest Color missed out in Best Foreign Language Film? When Chris Hemsworth and the Academy president were reading the nominees and the first one was Belgium's The Broken Circle Breakdown, I was certain they were going in alphabetical order by country, or perhaps using The Life of Adele, the literal English translation of Blue's French title, La Vie d'Adele.

14. Is Oscar a little ageist? Well, considering that for the second year in row there's an over-80 acting nominee (Nebraska's June Squibb, 84, in Best Supporting Actress), probably not. But what happened to Best Actor's once-looming status as a grandpa category this year? It always skews slightly older, but one month ago, the five presumed nominees -- Bruce Dern, 77, Chiwetel Eijofor, 36, Tom Hanks, 57, Matthew McConaughey, 44, and Robert Redford, 77-- made it seem more geriatric than usual. By replacing Hanks and Redford with Christian Bale and Leonardo DiCaprio, both 39, the shortlist immediately became more representative of Gen X thespian talent. (And now we can say that both Redford and DiCaprio have been overlooked for playing the title character of an adaptation of The Great Gatsby, whose 1974 version co-starred DiCaprio's current Best Actor rival Dern.)

Over in Best Actress, the inclusion of Adams, 39, over Thompson, 54, means that the category where there's usually at least one ingenue in the running, has only one actress under 40, the age when great roles for actresses presumably dry up.

15. Does Matthew McConaughey have a better chance in Best Actor because he's in two Best Picture nominees (Dallas Buyers Club and The Wolf of Wall Street) and therefore the Academy will get to see more of his work while screening the movies? (I have a feeling he has the vote of Best Actress nominee Sandra Bullock, his costar in his 1996 breakthrough A Time to Kill.) Will this won't work in favor of Amy Adams, who was also in two Best Picture nominees, American Hustle and Her? Attention, Cate Blanchett. Best Actress just became a two-woman race!

See all of the Oscar nominees here.