Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Betty White: Myth, Mirth, and Merch

By Leslie C. Halpern

Although she has detractors, Ruth Bader Ginsburg has evolved into the Betty White of the legal system. Most people – even young people – lovingly embrace this living legend. Now 85 years old, the diminutive Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States is the subject of the documentary RBG, a full-length feature directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West. Tickets for the one-time screening at the 2018 Florida Film Festival on Saturday, April 14th sold out quickly after going on sale a couple of weeks before the show.

Myth

Ruth Bader Ginsburg in RBG. Photo courtesy of Florida Film Festival.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg has been a life-long crusader for women’s equality and basic human rights for all, and has a reputation around Washington D.C. as an outspoken liberal queen who, though reviled by many conservatives, is adored by nearly everyone else. It’s often assumed that she has an opinion on everything and sits on the edge of her chair eager to give the dissenting vote. In reality, her children and late husband, Marty, (interviewed in RBG) describe her as quiet, reserved, ladylike, and serious, not prone to emotional outbursts. In the documentary, she comments on her often-quoted observations about politics, “Never respond in anger because it’s self-defeating.”

Likewise, Betty White (now well into her nineties) has myths surrounding her. Although Ms. White gives the appearance of being the same adorable eccentric off-screen that we see onscreen, she’s actually an intelligent actress, comedian, and businesswoman who has proven herself willing to take on vastly different roles during a television and film career spanning more than 60 years. She’s also adaptable enough to change with the times in order to remain relevant with her loyal fans and younger generations just discovering her.

Mirth

RBG meme

According to the documentary RBG, Justice Ginsburg rarely cracks a smile or makes a joke. That was her late husband’s job – in addition to the cooking. Though she’s known for being erudite and articulate, there’s also something inherently amusing about the feisty 5’ 0½ ” octogenarian in her over-sized glasses and drab black Justice robes adorned with frilly collars.

Kate McKinnon’s impression of her is a popular character who shows up frequently on the “Weekend Update” segment of Saturday Night Live. McKinnon’s over-the-top version depicts the same philosophies of Justice Ginsburg, but the opposite personality, expressing sexual innuendo and biting barbs, often punctuated with an energetic dance and the taglines: “And that’s a Ginsburg” or “He just got Ginsburged.”

Betty White meme

Betty White also has a strong connection to Saturday Night Live. Older audiences grew up watching her on television, but younger audiences became aware of her after she starred in recent television series, such as Hot in Cleveland and Boston Legal, and films (The Proposal and You Again), and perhaps most notably in a Super Bowl commercial for Snickers.

Her newfound popularity with the younger generations of fans included a successful Facebook campaign launched to have her host Saturday Night Live. She claims to have been asked several times to host the show, but feared performing in front of a live audience. She eventually hosted the show in 2010 after the Facebook campaign.

Merch

Another similarity between the two women is the merchandise – the mugs, the tee shirts, the socks, the DVDs, and other items. Amazon.com even offers a “Dissent Collar Necklace” for sale in Justice Ginsburg’s honor. And books, there are lots of published books. There’s Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik, I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark by Debbie Levy and Elizabeth Baddeley, The RBG Workout: How She Stays Strong…and You Can Too by Bryant Johnson, The Ruth Bader Ginsburg Coloring Book by Tom F. O’Leary, and others, including her best-selling memoir My Own Words by Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Mary Hartnett. Try Googling Ruth Bader Ginsburg and you’ll get more than 467,000 results.

The Golden Girls

Ms. White is no literary slouch either with several published books to her credit including her New York Times bestselling memoir If You Ask Me: (And Of Course You Won’t) and dozens of other books written about her by others, including the comic book, Female Force: Betty White by Patrick McCray and illustrated by Todd Tennant. Her image also is represented in a Funko POP TV action figure, mini cutout standee, celebrity mask, and posters, plus many more items where she’s joined by fellow cast members from The Golden Girls, Hot in Cleveland, You Again, and other productions.

Youth-Oriented Culture

With our youth-oriented disposable culture that promptly dismisses obsolete celebrities after their 15 minutes of fame, it’s amazing how these two significantly older women have captured the imaginations of so many and maintained this public interest over the long term. Perhaps even more curious is how the two women have overcome the initial surprise of their late-in-life popularity and accepted their status with grace and humor. In the documentary RBG, Justice Ginsburg (who recently celebrated another birthday) notes in disbelief: “I am 84 years old and everyone wants to take a picture with me.”

It’s anybody’s guess who’ll become the next non-traditional, over-age American icon who serendipitously captures the fluctuating zeitgeist.

For More Information

  • Ruth Bader Ginsburg on IMDB
  • Betty White on IMDB

 

Book Reviews: From My Nightstand

By Leslie C. Halpern

Much of my professional work involves reviewing books assigned by someone else for book review sites. So when I select books to review from the towering stack on my nightstand to review for my blog, you can be sure I enjoyed them enough to go to the extra effort. My nightstand includes books from authors I met at conventions, book signings, book fairs, and other events. Sometimes they just arrive without warning in the mail.

The stack is still towering and threatens to topple over at any minute, but of the past several books I’ve read recently from my nightstand, these are my three favorites. Find out more information about each book from Amazon.com by clicking on the highlighted links.

The Bait Man

The Bait Man by DL Havlin. (Paperback) Taylor and Seale Publishing, LLC. 315 pages. 978-1943789450.This mystery-suspense novel takes readers deep into Florida’s snake-filled swamps for an exciting story about Chessie, a brash young woman who works for a small fishing business and her harrowing experiences with her nemesis, Rooster, a vile, foul-mouthed bait man. Told mostly through Chessie’s first-person account, the story pits the former wild child and ex-Marine against the huge, hulking Rooster from their first encounter. After finding teeth and bone in frozen blocks of bait that Rooster provided, Chessie is convinced he’s a murderer and enlists the help of her policeman brother, Reading, to help her discover the truth. With or without police assistance, the strong-willed, thick-headed young woman puts her life in danger on numerous occasions to set a trap for the bait man. Thrilling and suspenseful, this novel reveals its secrets slowly as it reaches a satisfying conclusion.

Journey

Journey by Gary Roen. (Paperback) Legacy Publishing. 252 pages. 978-1937952075. This collection of short stories (both science fiction and general fiction) takes readers on journeys into many “what if” scenarios. Although some of the stories are flash fiction at just 66 words, most of the pieces are several pages long. The stories cover themes including revenge, lust, and greed, sometimes set within the publishing industry. Florida and Chicago serve as backdrops, along with some outer space locations. Each story has the element of surprise for the reader when characters behave unexpectedly and plots twist in curious ways. Seven of the short stories focus on the adventures of a hideous human-sized teddy bear named Slotski who has sharp claws and bloody fangs that come in handy when he’s angry. For the most part, however, his mission is to help people who unknowingly need his services. These quirky stories make an interesting and diverse collection.

Beauty Lessons

Beauty Lessons by Terry Godbey. (Paperback) Quercus Review Press. 63 pages. 978-0974307091. This lovely chapbook was an annual book award winner in the Quercus Review Press poetry series a few years ago. Divided into three sections, “Ready or Not,” “Only Child,” and “Hunger,” the book is loosely chronological and traces the author’s childhood (including her first kiss and awakening sexuality) to her adult life. Throughout the years, she often focuses on beauty, as in “My Face at 46” in which she writes: “I’ve seen enough of my mouth / wrinkled as a drawstring purse, / my parade of big teeth, / the two in front tipping forward / like drunks.” Her critical eye looks outward also. From “Produce Man”: “He’ll fuss over vegetables and fruit / only to watch them leave / in the arms of women / who never look at him / among the mangoes and artichokes / and find him appetizing, / this famished man / who feeds us all.” Sensitive, insightful, and accessible, it’s easy to see how this accomplished poet and her delightful collection won first place in the annual contest.

The Man Who Invented Christmas – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

Based on the best-selling book of the same name by Les Standiford, The Man Who Invented Christmas looks at how Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens) changed the way people think about the holiday based on Ebenezer Scrooge’s personal transformation in A Christmas Carol.

Dan Stevens stars in The Man Who Invented Christmas. Photo copyright 2017 Bleeker Street.

Painters, filmmakers, singers, dancers, and other visual and performing artists are far easier to depict in the movies than writers. Putting pen to paper or finger to keyboard just isn’t that interesting to watch. The Man Who Invented Christmas circumvents this problem by depicting the dreams, memories, and imagination of Charles Dickens, in addition to his everyday circumstances. The past, present, and future combine with the real and imagined in a film that compares the creator and his creation.

A Master Storyteller

The movie begins in 1842, when Britain and the United States herald Dickens as a master storyteller for Oliver Twist. Just one year later, however, he’s had two unsuccessful new books, an expanding family, expensive house renovations, and a disinterested publisher. Desperate to reclaim his former glory and secure his finances, Dickens decides to write a Christmas book, even though the holiday is soon approaching.

Encouraged by his friend, Forster (Justin Edwards), who acts as a literary agent of sorts, he enlists the aid of an artist to illustrate the story of a misery man (Christopher Plummer in a terrific casting choice as Scrooge) visited by three ghosts in one night.

A Looming Deadline

The next few weeks are spent observing everything in his atmosphere for inspiration – from the local cemetery to his children’s bedroom – so he can lock the pieces of his puzzling story into place. Sure enough, he finds all the characters and plot points he needs in his everyday life – except for the ending. Struggling with a looming deadline, he finally looks inward for his answer and finds it.

Director Bharat Nalluri and screenwriter Susan Coyne turn what could have been a depressing examination of family dysfunction and hurtful legacies into an uplifting story of self-discovery with the perfect blend of humor and seriousness for the subject matter and the PG rating. From the compelling acting to the extraordinary set design, this inspiring movie adds another dimension to the classic Christmas story about cleansing one’s soul and embracing others.

The Man Who Invented Christmas

  • This fantastical family film (based on a true story) examines how Charles Dickens created A Christmas Carol while writing under extreme financial limitations and a ridiculously tight deadline.
  • Stars: Dan Stevens, Christopher Plummer, Jonathan Pryce, Simon Callow, Miriam Margolyes, Morfydd Clark, Justin Edwards
  • Director: Bharat Nalluri
  • Writer: Susan Coyne
  • Genre: Biography Comedy/Drama
  • Run Time: 104 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: PG (for thematic elements and some mild language)
  • Additional Information: For another recently released film about a famous British author, read Goodbye Christopher Robin – Movie Review, the story of A. A. Milne’s creation of Winnie the Pooh and his friends.

 

Goodbye Christopher Robin – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

Remember those happy lyrics from the Winnie the Pooh song? “Deep in the Hundred Acre Wood, / Where Christopher Robin plays. / You’ll find the enchanted / neighborhood, / of Christopher’s childhood days.” Well, Goodbye Christopher Robin is a riveting biographical drama that casts a bit of gloom over the blissful existence of a little boy and his anthropomorphic stuffed animals.

Goodbye Christopher Robin. Photo copyright 2017 Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Inspired by the true story of A.A. Milne (Domhnall Gleeson), who created honey-loving Winnie the Pooh and his fuzzy friends, the film looks at how a world opens its heart to the lovable woodland creatures to escape recently experienced horrors of World War I. Milne returns home from the War debilitated by post-traumatic-stress disorder, and writes plays and books as a means of escapism.

Milne Wants to Make People See

He reaches the point where he needs to leave London for the country with Daphne (Margot Robbie, as a cold-hearted mother and wife) and their young son (angelic little Will Tilston) for some peace and quiet. It’s here that he plans to write an anti-war book that will change the way people attempt to solve their problems. Tired of making people laugh, Milne wants people to see and think.

Daphne wants no part of such a plan and heads back to London for more partying. Meanwhile the family’s beloved nanny (Kelly Macdonald) leaves for a few weeks to take care of her dying mother, which means father and son are left alone for the first time. During this extended period, Milne finally bonds with Christopher Robin (who is nicknamed Billy Moon), making up stories about the stuffed animals and having adventures in the woods. Although his son asks Milne to write a story for him about the animals, he writes a book about his son and the animals that captures the world’s imagination.

Enormous Wealth for the Family

The sudden success of these books brings Daphne back home, earns enormous wealth for the family, and casts a lonely little boy in the international spotlight. Billy Moon insists the boy in the stories is not him, and recoils from the interviews and media attention. His star-struck parents, however, exploit the boy for fame and fortune at the expense of his happiness. Only the nanny observes this sad state of affairs and gets fired for speaking her mind.

At times lighthearted and joyful, other times dark and disturbing, Goodbye Christopher Robin tells the sad story behind one of the most beloved literary creations of all time. Gleeson comes across as a well-meaning, but clueless father, so lost in his PTSD and imagination that he’s rarely accessible to his son. Robbie’s portrayal of Daphne is downright frigid; beautiful and fun-loving, she’s selfish and insensitive most of the time. Little Will Tilston, who plays eight-year-old Christopher, has an androgynous appearance with enormous dimples and large, newly acquired permanent teeth. He’s quite good at throwing a major tantrum or displaying a subtle nuance of disappointment.

Cinematography is lush and beautiful with close-ups of beautiful faces and clothes, and gorgeous longshots of the woods near the family’s home. Apart from a manipulative scene toward the end and an extremely unflattering portrayal of Daphne, this film mostly tells the story behind-the-story without telling us what to think.

Goodbye Christopher Robin

  • This true story looks at how author A.A. Milne’s literary success with the Winnie the Pooh stories takes a devastating toll on his family.
  • Stars: Domhnall Gleeson, Margot Robbie, Kelly Macdonald, Will Tilston, Alex Lawther, Stephen Campbell Moore
  • Director: Simon Curtis
  • Writers: Frank Cottrell Boyce and Simon Vaughan
  • Genre: Biography Drama
  • Run Time: 101 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: PG (for thematic elements, some bullying, war images, and brief language)
  • Watch a trailer for this movie

Rebel In the Rye – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

Based on Kenneth Slawenski’s biography, J.D. Salinger: A Life and a screenplay by Danny Strong (who also served as director), Rebel in the Rye examines enigmatic author Jerry D. Salinger’s early days as a struggling writer and the years directly following the publication of The Catcher In the Rye, a classic American masterpiece.

Nicholas Hoult and Kevin Spacey star in Rebel In the Rye. Photo copyright 2017 IFC Films.

Crafting stories, proofreading, copyediting, and other tasks related to writing tend to be intellectual pursuits that don’t particularly lend themselves to physicality or strong emotion. Therefore, it’s not too surprising that this story of the reclusive writer’s life – compressed here to include his early days in college all the way to later years after two children and a failed  marriage – comes across as more of a cerebral study of the man, rather than an engaging cinematic portrayal.

The Problems of J.D. Salinger

Viewers learn about some of Salinger’s problems as a young man, his writing motivations, conflicted love interests, and constant inner demons, but the story never fully engages our emotions or presents a three-dimensional character we can embrace. The film is interesting without being enlightening or inspirational.

Here’s what Rebel In the Rye does accomplish. We learn of the similarities between the iconic character Holden Caulfield from The Catcher In the Rye and his creator, J.D. Salinger (Nicholas Hoult). After getting kicked out of other colleges for his sarcasm and bad attitude, Salinger finds a mentor (Kevin Spacey as college writing professor and Story editor, Whit Burnett) who believes in his writing, especially the Holden Caulfield character in a short story. (Spacey’s pithy depiction enlivens each scene in which he appears with a zestful sincerity lacking in other characters.)

Other than Jerry’s encouraging mother, his family doesn’t support his writing career. In fact, his father (Victor Garber) disapproves of most of his son’s decisions and behavior. Fighting in World War II has a devastating effect on Jerry that lands him in a mental hospital. His relationships with women mirror everything else in his life, including his publishing career: emotional detachment, inflexibility, and eventual abandonment.

Mysteries Remain Unsolved

Hoult exudes a certain charm as J.D. Salinger, despite his character’s unlikable qualities (such as calling people out for being phoney, refusing to accept critique of his work, and inability to forgive those he thinks betrayed him). Mental health professionals might argue that emotional abandonment by his father caused his anti-social behavior, and that his problems reached critical mass during the war, which led to post-traumatic stress disorder that stayed with him for the rest of his life. But those would only be theories based on the sketchy material provided in the film.

Why did J.D. Salinger really give up writing for publication after achieving worldwide fame with his novel? Why did he give up on his second marriage and two children to live alone in his secluded domestic retreat? Why did he give up on his close friendship with his mentor based on one misunderstanding? These questions remain frustrating unsolved mysteries in this biopic.

Rebel In the Rye

  • The true story of how reclusive writer J.D. Salinger achieved overnight fame with his book The Catcher In the Rye before abruptly deciding to end his publishing career.
  • Stars: Nicholas Hoult, Kevin Spacey, Sarah Paulson, Victor Garber, Zoey Deutch, Lucy Boynton
  • Writer-Director: Danny Strong
  • Genre: Biography Drama
  • Run Time: 106 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for some language including sexual references, brief violence, and smoking)