Tuesday, August 20, 2019

OVP: Smokey and the Bandit (1977)

Film: Smokey and the Bandit (1977)
Stars: Burt Reynolds, Sally Field, Jerry Reed, Jackie Gleeson, Mike Henry
Director: Hal Needham
Oscar History: 1 nomination (Best Film Editing)
Snap Judgment Ranking: 3/5 stars

With the recent death of Burt Reynolds (in a fast-moving world, I still think "within the last year" should qualify as recent), I caught for the first-time ever a retro screening of Smokey and the Bandit.  As someone who has seen a few of Reynolds's pictures, but not most of his most important ones, I wanted to do a retrospective of Reynolds at the time on the blog, but never got around to it.  In an odd conundrum, if you look at our most recent articles about Reynolds, you'll see we've discussed his strange associations with two unusual Hollywood deaths more than we have his films in 2019.  Though I don't think I'll have time to get to a Reynolds retrospective again this year (he'd make a great future Star of the Month), I did want to get my thoughts out about one of his most famous film roles, the Bandit, in the much-loved 1977 car-chasing flick.

(Spoilers Ahead) The movie is about Bandit (Reynolds), a local driving legend, who is recruited to drive a truck full of bootleg Coors to a party in Atlanta, Georgia (truly random fact I didn't know before I saw this film-Coors Beer was illegal to distribute east of Oklahoma before the mid-1980's, making it something of a high-end commodity on the East Coast at the time).  Bandit has to make it across the country in 28 hours in order to secure his payment of $80,000, and works with his partner Snowman (Reed), who will drive the truck while Bandit stays in front in his Trans Am, ready to distract any police officers who might try and pull over the vehicle & confiscate its illegal contents.  Along the way, Bandit runs afoul of Buford T. Justice (Gleeson), a bombastic Texas sheriff whose son Junior (Henry) was meant to marry Carrie (Field), who has by happenstance been picked up as a hitchhiker/runaway bride by Bandit.  The movie progresses with our heroes (Bandit, Snowman, & Carrie) continually outwitting Buford and Junior as they successfully get to Atlanta, beer-in-tow.

The movie is about as subtle as a jackhammer, and is not for those who are hoping for high cinema (I find it mildly amusing that we're having Cleo from 5 to 7 and Smokey and the Bandit featured in back-to-back reviews this week as you couldn't find two movies more divergent).  The film is silly, slapstick fun, and feels at home in the same vein as Animal House or Airplane!.  This is decidedly not my cup-of-tea, and I'm not compelled to see the sequels (which are famously atrocious...Field herself called the follow-up the worst movie she ever made), but it's not a bad movie.  Reynolds & Field have a natural chemistry that works in the picture, her down-home champagne and him bootleg whiskey.  Gleeson, a comic legend for a reason, stands out in his supporting role as Buford T. Justice more in-hindsight because every 80's villain would borrow from this picture, but I will admit that it was Field & Reynolds I enjoyed the most in the film.

The movie surprisingly won one Oscar nomination in its era, for Best Film Editing, and I get where this is coming from even though some of the other movies that year (Star Wars and Close Encounters) were landmarks in editing instead of just enjoyable.  The car chase sequences are a delight-combined with a rip-roaring soundtrack (particularly Jerry Reed's "East Bound and Down"), The well-structured chases do not seem repetitive, making the action just good, easy fun.  The politics of the film are atrocious (racial & sexual, in particular), to the point where you almost want to knock off most of the points that are earned by the chemistry between the two leads, but unlike Airplane! I didn't feel like they overwhelmed the movie.  Smokey inspired an endless parade of terrible sequels and ripoffs, but the original is pretty amusing, and an indication as to how Reynolds became such a big star in the first place.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962)

Film: Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962)
Stars: Corinne Marchand, Jose Luis de Vilallonga, Dominique Davray, Antoine Bourseiller
Director: Agnes Varda
Oscar History: No nominations
Snap Judgment Ranking: 4/5 stars

The death in March of film icon Agnes Varda made me take a bit of a look at my own film-watching habits, and meant that eventually I was going to need to make a confession on this blog-I've never seen an Agnes Varda film.  This felt unforgivable, and while I was on a date recently with a film buff, he picked Cleo from 5 to 7 as the movie we should stream off of Criterion, and I wholeheartedly agreed, finally getting rid of my lack of knowledge of this remarkable women's filmography, and starting with one of the earliest narrative pictures on her resumé.

(Spoilers Ahead) The movie takes place from, as the title indicates, 5-7 PM, and focuses on Cleo (Marchand), a superstitious woman who has had her tarot card reading over the opening credits (the only sequence in the movie shot in color), and we learn from this that Cleo assumes the test results from her doctor will reveal she has cancer.  Cleo, a pop singer, believes the fortune teller despite others assuming she's a foolish hypochondriac, and goes throughout the rest of her afternoon as she waits for her test results alternating between euphoria and despair.  Along the way we see her interact with her lover, her maid, friends, and just sort of have the type of lazy, French afternoon that was common in the New Wave, with us seeing a politically-charged Paris in the background of a seemingly vain, silly woman.  Throughout the film we hear on the radio discussions of the war in Algeria, as well as newscasts regarding President John F. Kennedy & the Vienna Conference.  Toward the end of the film, Cleo meets Antoine (Bourseiller), a soldier who is on leave from the war in Algeria, and we get a type of anti-war speech from the young man, claiming that he's worried he's going to die for nothing in the conflict.  Antoine goes with her to talk to the doctor, whom they run into by accident after pursuing him in his office, and the doctor nonchalantly tells Cleo that she does have cancer, but that he expects her to make a full recovery.  Cleo, now content with the knowledge that her worries were right, understands that there is still time left, and seems genuinely happy for the first time in the film sitting with Antoine even though they both face uncertain futures.

The movie is not for someone who doesn't have a patience for the French New Wave.  The claims that nothing of significance happens is wrong, of course (this is true of most films), but you'll have to look below the surface to find some of the meanings of the film, and if you don't appreciate spending a languid afternoon in Paris circa 1962, you're not going to have a good time.  But the movie is gorgeously-shot, and the camerawork is interesting, with us seeing random background action in wide shots that make the film almost feel like a documentary (which of course would be one of Varda's specialities).

But the film has something to say, both about war and about women.  The movie captures the conflicted ideas of the Algerian War, which some saw as a legitimate civil war while others saw as a far past-due time for France to decolonize.  Antoine's speech toward the end of the film is moving because he finds himself in the middle, not sure if he's helping or hurting France by fighting in the war, and wondering if putting his life in danger will ultimately make any difference.  This would echo future conflicts in Vietnam and Iraq, where it was questionable whether or not the goals of any side would ultimately be achievable.

Feminism is also a major part of the conversation.  Cleo is frequently dismissed by the men in her life as silly, as someone who is too vapid to have an understanding of her own self.  She's seen as ornamental, an assumption underlined by how often she's surrounded by mirrors in the picture, and more an object than a real flesh-and-blood person.  Varda sides with Cleo, though, in the end, when her worries and realizations that something is wrong ultimately prove to be accurate-Cleo does, indeed, have cancer, and so the worry was about something tangible.  In this instance, we see Cleo stop caring about the people around her, finally deciding to live for herself rather than convincing others to take her seriously, but it shows that the people around her should take Cleo (and women in general) seriously as their concerns & beliefs are valid and true.  All-in-all, it's an easy film to love, even if you might not always adore Cleo (a complicated protagonist), but it stays with you because Varda has something meaningful to say about war, sexism, and mortality.

Ranting On...Disney Plus

I probably have too many streaming sites (I currently do Netflix, Hulu, and Criterion), and sort of force myself to justify paying for all of them by making myself go through at least a trio of titles on the queue each month.  On top of cable, I spend a lot of money on different avenues of ways to see random movies & television content, and was thinking about skipping Disney+ when it was announced.  After all, it's hard in this day-and-age to really want to support Disney full-throttle, what with it continually bankrupting its creative library with uninspired remakes (Beauty and the Beast, Lion King, Aladdin) and contributions to a culture where basically the same five companies appear to own everything on the planet.  But I also am a film buff who understands that if I want to, say, see every feature-length Disney movie as part of my cinephile completism, I'm going to have to partake in a streaming service like Disney+ for at least a little while.  But I wanted to discuss one of the potential controversies that the service will have-that it is trying to gloss over some of the most nefarious moments in the company's long history, particularly when it comes to race.

More than any other movie studio, Disney's business model and success is predicated on a need for constant nostalgia.  Disney is not remaking films like Lion King and Jungle Book because they feel a new audience needs to see them; they are doing so because they hope that the parents who grew up with these movies want to see these films as much as the children do.  As a result of this constant regurgitation and theme parks that ensure old titles never really die, films like Snow White, Fantasia, and Cinderella are more important for the studio's modern-day success than most older movies are to a studio like Universal or Paramount.  As a result, keeping those movies palatable to modern-day audiences is a necessity in a way that other studios wouldn't feel the need to consider (i.e. why MGM never felt the need to update Gone with the Wind).

One of the major films of Disney's early period, and one that is still celebrated today (having been remade earlier this year by Tim Burton) is Dumbo, arguably one of the best movies the studio ever made.  The original film is going to be part of the streaming platform, but it also features a scene that has been correctly attacked for being racist, with a bird named Jim Crow giving Dumbo a black feather in order to fly.  The scene has problematic racial connotations, enough so that Disney (famed for commodifying pretty much everything at their parks) does not sell the crows among their merchandise.  As part of the streaming platform, Disney is going to lift this scene out of the movie, essentially editing out the sequence for a new generation of filmgoers.

This isn't the only time that Disney has decided to change its pictures.  Toy Story 2 has, over its end credits, a sequence where the film's villain Stinky Pete is seen in a compromising situation with two Barbie dolls promising them a role in Toy Story 3 before he's discovered by Woody; in the era of MeToo, this felt inappropriate and was taken out of the recent home video release of the picture.  In 1993, Aladdin had two lines from the song "Arabian Nights" cut that were considered racist toward Arabic people (something I never realized before researching this article, because I am most familiar with my brother's copy of the CD which he bought at the time, which had the old lyrics).  And of course, there's Song of the South, a 1946 film that has never been released in the United States despite it being a cornerstone of Disney lore (it features the Oscar-winning song "Zip-A-Dee-Do-Dah" and is the inspiration of the DisneyLand ride Splash Mountain).  Song of the South is available in Europe, but you cannot see it in the United States, and it will not be part of the Disney+ release.

I understand why these films aren't readily available or edited.  It's something that children might not be emotionally equipped to understand while watching.  However, to completely erase this chapter in Disney history is wrong, both from a film history perspective as well as to show that racism and sexism did exist, even at a place as considerably "wholesome" as Disney.  It is wrong that Song of the South is not available, if for no other reason than academic purposes, for film historians to research it in the context of Disney's history or the history of the representations of black people in film.  James Baskett was the first black male performer to ever win an Oscar, but the work that won him that statue is not available for anyone in the United States to actually see.  It feels like Disney should either have the unedited versions of these films on their platforms alongside the edited ones or release the films with some sort of legal caveat in order to show the original product for context.  Warner Brothers has done this with the Tom & Jerry and Looney Tunes cartoons, having warnings at the beginning of some of their films, and even having a video you can see here from actress Whoopi Goldberg contextualizing why the films that you're about to see are shown as they were originally seen, but why we wouldn't make films like that at the time.  It'd be very easy for Disney to do something like this, and the fact that they would rather gloss over their history by pretending it didn't happen, rather than admit to their role in it and try to highlight how they have made mistakes and want to make representations of persons of color and women in their films more progressive is telling.  Disney is a company that wants to make money, first and foremost, but that it doesn't also see its responsibility to its own legacy, particularly as now the world's largest movie studio, is short-sighted & dangerous.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Why Democrats Need to Care About Who Would Succeed Elizabeth Warren

Gov. Charlie Baker (R-MA) with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA)
It is November 10, 2020.  A week after the elections, Sen. Thom Tillis has conceded the close race in North Carolina to State Sen. Cal Cunningham, having lost to Cunningham by just over 5,000 votes.  Though a tight race, Tillis is foregoing a recount as it seems unlikely the election needle will be moved enough to get him a win.  He was swept out while President-Elect Elizabeth Warren was also taking the state, a feat she accomplished while also taking Arizona, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Iowa, and Michigan away from President Trump's 2016 column, giving her a slim victory that didn't really emulate the 4 million-vote popular vote margin that she picked up across the country.  Warren yesterday morning finally received a congratulations call from Vice President Mike Pence, conceding the election (President Trump, who has not made a public address since election night, has been tweeting conspiracy theories but privately had been encouraged by the vice president as well as senior cabinet officials that he cannot pursue legal action against Warren).  Warren's victory came with the Democrats holding the House, aided by a net pickup of four House seats in Texas that offset incumbents losing in South Carolina, Minnesota, & Utah, and it also helped her party to win not only Tillis's seat but also score surprisingly easy victories over Sens. Susan Collins, Cory Gardner, and Martha McSally.  She wasn't able to translate a slim victory in Iowa into a defeat of Joni Ernst, and Doug Jones still lost in Alabama, but these victories would have resulted in a 50/50 senate that Vice President Julian Castro would have been able to break, giving the Democrats the majority, but Warren's Senate seat will be staying in Republican hands after Gov. Charlie Baker announced that he will appoint his lieutenant governor, Karyn Polito, into the seat instead.  Polito has stated that while she doesn't agree with him on issues like gay marriage and abortion, she will still back Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and hopes to be a "moderating voice on McConnell, bringing Massachusetts values to the US Senate." This will guarantee McConnell briefly a majority in the first few months of the Warren presidency.

It is April 20, 2021.  Last night, in a staggering upset, interim-Senator Karyn Polito won a special election for the former seat of President Elizabeth Warren.  Warren's first 100 days in office have been a mixture of successes and failures.  She has been able to issue major executive actions on gun control and fixing the wage gap, but her cabinet is only half full thanks to Senate Majority Leader McConnell refusing to confirm her nominees to Treasury, Justice, Labor, and the EPA, stating they are "too liberal, and he must respect 'the will of the people' who made him Majority Leader."  Warren's presidency has largely been overshadowed by a sluggish economy, a lingering result of the Trump tariffs some of which are still in effect due to Warren's refusal to budge on human rights conditions in China, and international aggression from Russia & North Korea.  Combined with an exceptionally aggressive primary between two upstart Democrats in Massachusetts (Reps. Joe Kennedy & Ayanna Pressley) and a late April special election with low turnout, Polito was able to cobble together a victory coalition similar to that she enjoyed during her runs alongside Charlie Baker, ultimately winning the office by less than a percentage point.  When asked for comment, McConnell stated, "even her own state doesn't support Ms. Warren anymore," continuing his public trend of not referring to the president as "President Warren."  Privately, McConnell has been encouraging other rank-and-file Republicans to echo this line of attack, and seems emboldened to work as little with the White House as possible.  This could result in a huge standoff amid rumors that Ruth Bader Ginsburg will be retiring at the end of this session, and McConnell appears unlikely to let any of Warren's judicial nominees have a hearing.

It is now present day, and we're getting to the point of these two speculative news snippets.  These are not far-fetched scenarios.  Low approval ratings for President Trump & a waning economy give Democrats hope that they could, in fact, take both the White House and the Senate come 2021, particularly by picking up NC/ME/CO/AZ and only losing Alabama.  But this only results in a tie if the Democrats don't have to lose a Senate seat to get there, and with two major primary candidates, this is a problem.  Both Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders hale from states with Republican governors, so if they are part of a successful presidential ticket, they will likely be replaced by a Republican senator.  I say likely, because Vermont has a gubernatorial election in 2020, and were Sanders to be on the Democratic ticket, it's probable that Gov. Phil Scott could lose solely because he'd replace Sanders with a Republican; Scott's term would end on January 7, 2021, and since Sanders' hypothetical term as president wouldn't start until January 20th, 2021, he could just wait to resign from the Senate until after Scott left office.  Warren doesn't have this luxury, as Massachusetts's governor doesn't leave office until 2023.  Every other sitting senator running for POTUS on the Democratic side this year (Michael Bennet, Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, & Amy Klobuchar) comes from a state with a Democratic governor, so there's no concern over whether they would be giving a seat to a Republican.  So this is a situation unique to Warren (and to a lesser degree Bernie Sanders).

I'm going to make the argument here that this should matter, and is perhaps the biggest issue I have with Warren's candidacy for president.  The Democrats won't get anything of signficance done during the first 100 days of Warren's presidency if they don't have the Senate (this is true in general of all candidates, which is why I've focused my political donations on congressional candidates so far, rather than just giving to presidential candidates), and giving the Republicans the advantage of her seat is a big deal.  Some Democrats will quickly protest that a Democrat will easily win a Senate seat in Massachusetts, but history would beg to differ.

Sen. Doug Jones (D-AL), Attorney General Jeff Sessions (R-AL),
and Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL)
Since 1976, 12 sitting senators have resigned to either become president, vice president, or a member of the new president's administration.  They include one president (Barack Obama), four vice presidents (Walter Mondale, Dan Quayle, Al Gore, & Joe Biden), six cabinet secretaries (Ed Muskie, Lloyd Bentsen, Ken Salazar, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, & Jeff Sessions) and one ambassador (Max Baucus).  Most of these vacancies occurred during the presidency of Barack Obama.  Obama appointed four sitting senators to his administration (along with Joe Biden), while Presidents Carter, Clinton, & Trump only appointed one (to date).  What should be startling to Democrats is how many of these seats eventually went to the other party.

Of these 12 seats, it's worth noting that none of the seats initially went to the Republicans the way that Warren's would.  While the party has nominated senators who would have given up their seat to the other side (Joe Lieberman in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004, for example), none of them have actually won in the past 40 years.  You have to go back to 1974, when President Nixon appointed William Saxbe as Attorney General, and the Republican Saxbe was succeeded by the Democratic Howard Metzenbaum to find the last time a party willingly gave up a Senate seat.  This is telling perhaps because of the 12 people I name-checked above, six of those seats ended up going to the Republicans in the next election; at least two more would have been pickups had the Republicans not screwed up by nominating Tea Party candidates (Biden & Salazar).  This includes people from states that the president had just won by a landslide (Obama in Illinois, Sessions in Alabama, Mondale in Minnesota).  The realities of the first two years of a presidential term is that it frequently results in the opposite party being unpopular, and strange things like a Republican winning in Illinois or a Democrat taking Alabama start to occur.  Suffice it to say, a Republican winning Massachusetts in a special election isn't far-fetched, and Warren knows this better than anyone-she won her seat from Sen. Scott Brown, who was only in office because he took a special election upset during the early days of Barack Obama's presidency.

Ultimately Warren shouldn't be totally disqualified from being the Democratic nominee because her seat would go red immediately, and potentially stay there.  If she's truly the best candidate, it'd theoretically be worth it to have her beat Trump.  But as there is no polling to indicate she's the only candidate to beat Trump (quite the contrary), it's worth remembering that beating Mitch McConnell is just as important as besting Donald Trump if you actually want climate change, gun control, and judicial nominees to pass through the Senate.  Yes, someone like Harris, Klobuchar, or Booker would face a similar sort of issue in 2022 with their replacements potentially losing during the midterms, but at least we would have had two years of a Senate majority if the Democrats get their net three seats, and with that most of the legislation/judicial appointments would have likely already happened.  Warren surely would downplay this, but one could make the argument that she didn't do enough in 2018 to beat Baker to prevent this problem, and doesn't appear ready to coax the Massachusetts state legislature to change the law to emulate Arizona or Wyoming (where she'd be required to be replaced with someone of the same party).  Unless she pulls something like this off, with Warren you are casting a vote against Donald Trump, but you're also casting a vote for Mitch McConnell, and that's not something any Democrat should take likely, even if it feels weird to think that a vote for one of the most progressive candidates in the race is a vote for one of the left's most ardent nemeses.

OVP: Cinderella Man (2005)

Film: Cinderella Man (2005)
Stars: Russell Crowe, Renee Zellweger, Paul Giamatti, Bruce McGill, Craig Bierko
Director: Ron Howard
Oscar History: 3 nominations (Best Supporting Actor-Paul Giamatti, Makeup, Film Editing)
Snap Judgment Ranking: 2/5 stars

Boxing has long been Oscar's favorite sport.  In many ways, it might be the only sport that Oscar really cares about.  After all, while AMPAS occasionally has dalliances with baseball, track, or basketball, it's boxing that they return to most frequently, and is the only genre that would normally be considered "Oscar-bait."  It's not hard to see why this is; the Academy loves stories about one person overcoming obstacles and achieving some sort of personal & professional triumph.  The boxing motif has been tried-and-true, used countless times from Rocky to Raging Bull to Million Dollar Baby with consistent success, but it also means that it's predictable, and frequently a snooze unless the filmmakers can find some way to spice up the action on screen with some artistry or compelling performances.  Sadly, Ron Howard is not a director who is good at letting artistic license best conformity & an old-school Hollywood story, and as a result Cinderella Man is what happens when you put some talented actors in a room and give them nothing unique to say or do.

(Spoilers Ahead) The movie is the true story of boxer James J. Braddock (Crowe), a man who was once considered an up-and-coming contender, who has fallen on hard times.  We're at the height of the depression, and he breaks his hand in the ring, depriving him of a chance to make a living, and in many ways nearly ruining his chances of even being a dockworker.  His wife Mae (Zellweger), seems relatively happy he's out of the sport even though she knows they need the money, as she's spent most of their marriage worried he'll kill himself in the ring.  They struggle, and have to move their kids out of their house because they can't afford to pay the bills or rent, but one day a random opportunity has Braddock taking on World Number 2 Corn Griffin (who needs practice before a big fight), and Braddock beats him, as the breaking of his right hand has made his left much stronger.  Soon Braddock has become a major contender in the ring again, and has a chance to take on the reigning heavyweight champion Max Baer (Bierko), but Mae is worried that Baer (who has supposedly killed two men in the ring) will do the same to her husband.  They fight, but ultimately he ends up in the bout against Baer, and in an upset wins the title away from Baer, getting to live happily-ever-after with Mae and their kids in a house he buys from the winnings.

The film is uplifting, and it's kind of fun to see Crowe & Zellweger, who have in the years since seen their stars completely disappear (despite being a modest hit, this feels like sort of the end of their short reigns as two of the biggest names in Tinseltown) be proper movie stars once more, but it's not very good.  The movie is too conventional and too long.  The lead actors are fine, but they don't rise above this material, and after both had won three Oscar nominations a piece in the six years prior to this movie, we know they can do better than just sturdy.  Howard crafts a handsome tale, but he doesn't have much heart, and neither of these actors distinguish their characters enough for us to care about them more than a middling movie.

The film won three Oscar nominations, including one for Best Supporting Actor Paul Giamatti.  If you re-watch George Clooney's Golden Globes acceptance speech from that year, he started it out with "I thought Paul Giamatti was gonna win."  Indeed, at the time it looked like it'd be a race between Giamatti & Clooney for this trophy (Giamatti would win the SAG), thanks in large part to the belief that Giamatti had been robbed the year before of an expected Oscar nomination for Sideways.  Watching this performance, though, Giamatti's work here feels a bit ancillary, and much the same schtick that he's been doing for the past fifteen years-a bombastic, larger-than-life guy infused with a masculine energy that feels like it's over-compensating to compete with his more famous male lead.  Giamatti's work here is easily forgettable, if pretty loud, and I'm thankful he didn't pick up a trophy for it.  We'll eventually get to the Oscar Viewing Project of 2005 (we'll be back into 2016's races in a few days), so I won't go too far in on Giamatti's work here, but I will say this is fine if they wanted to give a long-time character actor a random nomination (that happens with the supporting categories on occasion), but it's not groundbreaking or really rising above an already limited film.

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Should Democrats Take the Risk in the Senate?

Trump Campaign Manager Corey Lewandowski (R-NH)
This past week, President Donald Trump appeared at a rally in Manchester, NH.  Like most Trump events, there were moments of sheer horror (his admonishment of a protester for their weight seems like something virtually any Democratic candidate right now would be forced to drop out of the race for, but for Trump we'll have forgotten that it happened by Monday), but there was something that probably would have an impact on the 2020 elections that happened during his speech.  Trump, for all intents-and-purposes, lent his support to his former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, who is exploring a bid for the Senate in 2020 against Democratic incumbent-Sen. Jeanne Shaheen.  I wanted to take a look at this, and the "be careful what you wish for" situation that several Senate races are encountering in 2020.

Lewandowski, for those that need a refresher, comes with a significant amount of personal baggage despite the president's kind words about him at the rally (to quote Trump, "He's tough...he's smart...he would be fantastic" he said in relation to Lewandowski's potential bid for the Senate).  Lewandowski was Trump's first campaign manager, and as campaign manager, he attracted a number of headlines that would be huge problems for him in a Senate race.  He grabbed reporter Michelle Fields at a press conference in Florida, resulting in him being charged with battery (State Attorney Dave Aronberg ultimately declined to prosecute), and there was an additional situation in Arizona later that month where Lewandowski grabbed a protester by the collar.  Lewandowski left the campaign the next month, but has been a frequent talking head for Trump in the years since, but again not without controversy.  In 2018, he mocked an immigrant girl with Down Syndrome, and in 2017 he was accused of sexually harassing singer Joy Villa.  This is all on top of the fact that Lewandowski had a very public (alleged) affair with Hope Hicks, and isn't really a great campaigner; he's lost his previous two bids for public office, and you can't really give him any credit for Donald Trump being president.  Lewandowski left months before Trump seemed like someone who could win the general election, and it's Kellyanne Conway, not Lewandowski, who deserves the credit for that.

Suffice it to say, Lewandowski comes with a mountain of baggage, all of which Shaheen could (and would) exploit in a Senate campaign.  It's almost to the point where a Democrat might hope he's her challenger, in that it would make Shaheen theoretically have an easier go at a third term.  After all, New Hampshire is one of the very few (I'd argue one of only three, along with Alabama & Michigan) states where the Republicans could theoretically make a play for a Senate seat pickup in 2020.  But the question is-is this the reaction that we should be having?  Should Democrats actively hope for the most incendiary candidate as their opponent, or is it not worth the risk because they might win?

Gov. Edwin Edwards (D-LA)
I can think of three cases right now that address this question, two of which would say it's worth the risk, and a third of which would not.  The first is the 1991 Louisiana governor's race.  That race is the stuff of legend (enough so we could do a few posts about it), but suffice it to say the Democrats had screwed up badly.  Former Gov. Edwin Edwards, who had spent most of his third term under indictment & wildly unpopular for wanting to legalize gambling statewide in order to subsidize the education cuts Edwards had been forced to make in a down economy, still had enough popularity in the party to force Public Service Commissioner Kathleen Blanco out of the race by claiming a woman could never win in Louisiana (Blanco would prove him wrong in 2003 when she'd be elected the first female governor).  With Blanco out, Edwards, a crook, ran largely unopposed as the Democratic nominee, ensuring he'd get a spot in the jungle primary runoff.  Most assumed, despite being wildly unpopular, that Republicans would pick incumbent-Gov. Buddy Roemer as their challenger in the runoff, likely beating Edwards in a rematch of the contest from four years earlier when Roemer bested Edwards, but they didn't.  In a shocking election night upset, the Republicans instead went with KKK Grand Wizard David Duke.  This resulted in Edwards winning the runoff in a landslide, earning endorsements (despite his party label from) Roemer (who publicly & privately detested Edwards) and even President George Bush.  Edwards (and by proxy the Democrats) would have lost to virtually anyone else...except David Duke.

The second such circumstance happened in Missouri in 2012.  Sen. Claire McCaskill was running behind in her bid for reelection, and seemed a certain goner come November.  But McCaskill, an ace politician & a veteran Missouri insider, knew her best shot at a win was against Rep. Todd Akin, one of three Republicans running for the chance to be her challenger.  She ran ads proclaiming that he was "too conservative" for the state, which only helped him in the primary to win, besting State Treasurer Sarah Steelman & businessman John Brunner.  Akin's views on women then became well-known after Akin won the nomination, giving an infamous speech about "legitimate rapes" not resulting in pregnancy, comments rightfully proclaimed offensive & factually inaccurate.  McCaskill was able to turn those comments into a case that, like Edwards running an "anyone but Duke" campaign, she was better in an "anyone but Akin" campaign, and it worked.  McCaskill won reelection in a landslide.

You can see where I'm going here.  "Anyone but Duke" and "Anyone but Akin" both worked, but "Anyone but Trump" showed that occasionally you lose even when the stakes are high.  Hillary Clinton surely thought she had the White House in the bag when the Republicans picked Donald Trump, whose closet was brimming with skeletons and who made incendiary comments on the daily.  As we all know, this was not the case, as Clinton lost the 2016 presidential election by a minuscule margin against Donald Trump, giving the Democrats four years of weeping that might have been four years of grumbling with someone like Jeb Bush in the Oval Office.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH)
So it's worth asking-is it worth it to go against someone like Lewandowski, Kobach, and Moore, even though with the advantage of a weaker opponent, you might still lose?  I'd argue that it depends on the situation, because as Trump illustrated, sometimes the stakes are too high for you to take such a risk.  With Lewandowski, I'd argue it's probably worth it.  Jeanne Shaheen is the frontrunner regardless of whom the Republicans in New Hampshire pick (this probably stayed "Lean D" or better the second Gov. Chris Sununu declined the race).  As a consequence, the end result here doesn't change, but it certainly will hurt Republicans in the state who want to distance themselves from Trump (like Sununu) but now will also have to have to distance themselves from Lewandowski.  Sununu is probably going to be the challenger against Sen. Maggie Hassan in 2022 if he wins reelection here; this might be the best way to end his political future before Hassan has to have a top-tier race.  If I'm a Democratic strategist, the extremely slim chance that Lewandowski wins is worth the increased odds that you take the governor's mansion in 2020 & make it considerably easier for Hassan to win reelection three years from now.

Alabama & Kansas are not the same.  Alabama, in particular, is not worth the risk.  In a presidential election in a state as red as this (where Trump is going to be winning by 25-points), I just can't imagine Doug Jones outrunning any Republican nominee, even Moore.  And Moore getting ahold of the filibuster and the powers of an individual US Senator feels like too much of a risk.  When your options are probably "Moore wins by 8-points" or "Bradley Byrne wins by 15-points," I'd prefer it just go to Byrne all-things-being-equal.

Kansas, though, is a conundrum.  Kansas is red, but it's shown an antipathy toward Trump, and the state has a weird history of Republicans screwing themselves over by alienating their moderate base (I talk about this more in-depth here if you're interested).  According to Morning Consult, Trump's approval rating in Kansas has decreased 19-points since he was inaugurated, and he currently only has a net-5 approval rating in the state; this makes Kansas similar in a lot of ways to a state like Texas or Georgia, which are considered outside-possibility swing states.  Last year, the Democrats picked up a House seat in the state, nearly won a second, and watched as State Sen. Laura Kelly crushed controversial Secretary of State Kris Kobach in the governor's race.  Kobach is still a lightning rod, but without a ringer (like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo), it's entirely possible that candidates like Rep. Roger Marshall, State Treasurer Jake LaTurner, & Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle split the non-Kobach vote in an echo of 2018's Republican primary, and he gets through on a plurality.  I'd feel better if the Democrats had recruited State Sen. Barbara Bollier as their nominee (she's still publicly considering the run, but most people privately speculate that she's not interested enough to wage such a tough battle), but even against someone like Rep. Nancy Boyda or US Attorney Barry Grissom, it's entirely possible that the stars would align to get the Democrats a second victory off of Kobach.  It's a risky affair, as Kobach would still be a favorite in the general (for federal office), but if Trump is actually only going to win Kansas by 5-6 points, someone like Bollier/Boyda/Grissom would be able to outrun that against Kobach.  And the stakes are high enough (with a Democratic victory here likely getting Chuck Schumer to a majority), that it'd probably be worth it to hope for Kobach as the GOP nominee.  But like Trump illustrated, you're playing with a lot of fire when you make such a bet.

OVP: Strangers on a Train (1951)

Film: Strangers on a Train (1951)
Stars: Farley Granger, Ruth Roman, Robert Walker, Leo G. Carroll, Patricia Hitchcock, Laura Elliott, Marion Lorne
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Oscar History: 1 nomination (Best Cinematography)
Snap Judgment Ranking: 4/5 stars

Each month, as part of our 2019 Saturdays with the Stars series, we highlight a different actress of Hollywood's Golden Age.  This month, our focus is on Ruth Roman-click here to learn more about Ms. Roma (and why I picked her), and click here for other Saturdays with the Stars articles.


When I selected Ruth Roman as our star of the month, one of the main reasons I did so was I wanted to see her most noted film, Strangers on a Train.  I didn't realize at the time that this would be a complicated decision in retrospect.  Roman's time on Strangers was probably a mixed one.  At this point in her (relatively short) career as a leading woman, she'd had a few hits (which we've profiled already here and here), and with this picture she was about to get her closest brush with immortality in what is generally considered to be one of Alfred Hitchcock's best pictures.  However, personally this was a rough shoot for Roman.  She and Hitchcock (who would never work together again) detested each other, with Hitch (after Jack Warner forced him to hire Roman, whom the director thought "lacked sex appeal") frequently harassing her.  Hitchcock was known for his intense, in some cases predatory, treatment of his leading ladies, and one wonders how much Ruth Roman liked being most associated with a film that was hell for her to make.  However, it is impossible to take a look at the career of Roman and not talk about Strangers, so here we are.

(Spoilers Ahead) The film centers on two men who meet by chance on a train (strangers, if you will): Guy Haines (Granger), a tennis star who in in a messy divorce with his cheating wife Miriam (Elliott), and who desperately wants to meet the classy senator's daughter Anne (Roman), and Bruno (Walker), a man who wants to kill his father so that he won't chastise him and will give him his fortune.  Bruno proposes that the two men "swap murders," solving both of their problems, and Guy politely laughs, thinking the man is just being morbidly silly, but in fact Bruno is serious, and takes this chuckle as an agreement to the bargain.  Bruno then does, in fact, kill Miriam (who has refused to grant Guy a divorce, ruining his chances at happiness), and the film unfolds with Bruno essentially blackmailing Guy into trying to commit the murder he didn't really agree to, all-the-while having planted enough suspicion on Guy that he might be able to pin Miriam's murder on the tennis player if he doesn't go along with the plan to kill his father.  The film ends with a chase on a carousel (which apparently didn't use as much trick photography as you'd think, which makes this scene one of the most literally dangerous you'll probably ever see in an actual movie, as a man climbs under an actual moving carousel), and eventually the police reveal, despite him lying with his last breath, that Bruno is in fact the killer of Miriam, exonerating Guy to marry Anne.

The movie is great.  I love Hitchcock in general, and so I was predisposed to this, but probably put it more in the camp of North by Northwest than a film like Vertigo or Notorious (I've never released my personal favorite Hitchcock list on this blog because I'd have to admit to not seeing a few classics, but this puts it right on the cusp of the 4-star brilliant ones and my 5-star beloveds).  Walker is sensational in the role of a lifetime (sadly, he'd die almost immediately after this film so it wasn't a movie that he could capitalize on), and Granger looks sexy as hell as Guy.  Obviously Anne is in love with Guy, but Bruno clearly is also (Hitchcock intended Bruno to be coded as gay, and it works-there's no confusing this for merely a brotherly swapped homicide), but who can blame him-Farley Granger in his tennis whites is the stuff that makes men realize their inclinations.  The film's plot has been so borrowed from that watching it for the first time nearly seventy years later likely doesn't have the same impact that it did in 1951 (you can't fault the movie for that, though-it's not its own fault it was such a landmark), the acting from the likes of Walker is timeless enough it's still sensational.

Roman, our star of the month, continues her curse of having top-billing for supporting parts, and she's good in the film, acting lovely and occasionally getting some interesting scenes (particularly one at the tennis match), but she's no match for her female costars.  Hitchcock's antipathy to her might have been because, for possibly the first time in his filmography, he gave the impossibly gorgeous woman the least interesting part in the picture.  After all, Strangers on a Train is brimming with great supporting turns for the ladies, from Elliott's vicious Miriam to Patricia Hitchcock's brainy-but-oblivious Barbara (proving that nepotism can occasionally advantage the audience) to Lorne's doting, enabling, and probably knowing mother-of-the-murderer.  Roman gets saddled with the love interest and doesn't really have enough script to stand out in a picture filled with standouts.  At this point, Life Magazine had proclaimed "The Rise of Ruth Roman" across its cover, but in looking at her key films of the era, we haven't actually seen her rise to anything other than the woman-behind-the-man.