Indoctrinating students isn’t the same as teaching them. Homer and Shakespeare have much to tell us about how to think and how to live.
John Agresto writes: I was a few minutes early for class. Father Alexander, my high-school sophomore-homeroom teacher, was standing outside the room, cigarette in his mouth, leaning on the doorjamb. “Morning, Father.”
His response was to put his arm across the door. “Agresto,” he said, “I have a question I’ve been thinking about and maybe you can help me.”
“Sure, what’s up?”
“Do you think a person in this day and age can be called well educated who’s never read the ‘Iliad’?” I hadn’t read the “Iliad,” and am not even sure I had heard of it. “Hmmm. Maybe, I don’t see why not. Maybe if he knows other really good stuff . . .” His response was swift. “OK, Agresto, that proves it. You’re even a bigger damn fool than I thought you were.”
I grew up in a fairly poor Brooklyn family that didn’t think that much about education. My father was a day laborer in construction—pouring cement, mostly. He thought I should work on the docks. Start by running sandwiches for the guys, he told me. Join the union. Work your way up. There’s good money on the docks. And you’ll always have a job. He had nothing against school, except that if bad times came, working the docks was safer.
I also grew up in a house almost without books. All I remember is an encyclopedia we got from coupons at the grocery store and a set of the “Book of Knowledge” from my cousin Judy. Once in a while I’d head over to the public library and borrow something—a book on tropical fish, a stamp catalog, a book by someone called Levi on pigeons. It never dawned on me to look at what else there was. Who read that stuff anyway?
So now I’m a professor and former university president who grew up without much real childhood reading until eighth grade, two or three years before the “Iliad” question. Sister Mary Gerald asked me one day if I read outside of class. I told her about the pigeon book and the stamp catalog. No, she asked, had I ever read any literature?
Whereupon she pulled out something called “Penrod and Sam,” by a guy named Booth Tarkington. She said I should read it. I did. I can’t say that “Penrod and Sam” is great literature, but it changed a small bit of my neighborhood. Penrod had a club. So my friends and I put together a club. Penrod’s club had a flag; we had a flag. Penrod would climb trees and spy on the surroundings. We had to be content with climbing on cyclone fences.
Who would have thought there was a new way of having adventures, learned from a book? A book, by the way, of things that had never happened. Something had pierced the predictable regularity of everyday street life. And that something was a work of someone’s imagination.
So I started to read, and with the appetite of a man who finally realized he was hungry. I became a reader of fairly passionate likes and dislikes. Dickens was fine, though he could have gotten to the point sooner. O. Henry, Stevenson and later Tolkien, Lewis, Swift. Read the rest of this entry »
Todd McCarthy writes: Mike Nichols is such a great talker, my first desire after reading The Hollywood Reporter’s current skipping-stone account of his theatrical directing career is to buy his own 20-disc recording of the autobiography he unfortunately hasn’t written yet.
My second desire is to see Death of a Salesman before it closes.
My third is to know: Who is Mike Nichols?
As Meryl Streep attests, he always is “the smartest and most brilliant person in the room.” I spent a couple of hours with him many years ago, a memorable encounter that directly led to my first job in Hollywood — as assistant to his former partner, Elaine May. At the time, Nichols was preparing to direct the film version of The Last Tycoon, a project that eventually passed to his self-proclaimed idol, Elia Kazan, while Nichols moved on to The Fortune. This sequence of events didn’t work out well for either of them; it was the end for Kazan, and Nichols didn’t direct another dramatic feature for nearly a decade.
Nichols’ best films, in order:
ANGELS IN AMERICA (2003) Nichols’ distinct talents for stage and screen merge perfectly in this superlative adaptation of one of the great American epic plays. Jeffrey Wright and Al Pacino are out of this world in it.
CARNAL KNOWLEDGE (1971) With a terrific Jules Feiffer script (originally written as a play) and a bold visual style, this bracing study of men’s attitudes toward women is probably the director’s most probing, self-revelatory film.
THE GRADUATE (1967) Still funny and sharp-edged after all these years, it’s one of the great zeitgeist films of the ‘60s or any other era, caricatured, perhaps, but with truth and insight to support it. Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft are simply sensational.
WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? (1966) Richard Burton remains the standout in Nichols’ vibrant and vital adaptation of one of the seminal American plays, with Haskell Wexler’s mobile, unflattering black-and-white cinematography still a marvel.
WORKING GIRL (1988) This key female empowerment comedy is sheer enjoyment, plain and simple, with Nichols displaying his great skill with actors by making everyone in the variously talented cast look equally good.
And therein lies the first mystery. Why did this golden boy, who had conquered improv, recording, cabaret and Broadway by his early 30s, won an Oscar for his second film and batted .750 in his first four times up to the plate — with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Graduate and Carnal Knowledge all going for extra bases while Catch-22 was a deep fly out to left — suddenly flatline, lose “The Knack” (also the title of a play he successfully directed in the early 1960s) and retreat to Broadway? Read the rest of this entry »