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Culture and Arts

Culture Watch

In this issue:

Is a woman fit to serve as Vice President?  You bet she is, but in the riveting political thriller The Contender, she'd better watch her back because the long knives are out. And they're sharp. 

Reunited after a lifetime apart, the mother and daughter of the heartbreaking "I Hope You Have a Good Life" experience a rare joy that is soon overshadowed by tragedy.

A history of Sunday in America, "Holy Day, Holiday" depicts the shifting significance of the sacred and secular on the Lord's Day. 


It's the Principle, Stupid

The Contender

Written and directed by Rod Lurie

The Best Man, Gore Vidal's drama about Washington intrigue, is currently being revived on Broadway, while the best woman appears on movie screens in the provocative, movie, The Contender. The plot revolves around the President's need to name a successor to his lately deceased Vice President. The leading candidate is a personable Virginia Governor who has become a national hero by his failed attempt to rescue a woman trapped in a car that has plunged from a bridge.

Looking to his legacy, President Jackson Evans startles his close advisers and the country by rejecting the Gov and picking a woman, Senator Laine Hanson. But as we all know, POTUS--the Secret Service name for the leader of the free world--doesn't always get his way. Blocking the threshold to Hanson's smooth entry into the executive branch is a wily and fearsome opponent: Shelly Runyon, Republican chairman of the Veep-vetting House committee. Hanson had earlier switched allegiance from Republican to Democrat, and the liberal-hating Runyan plots nothing less than a political assassination. Any weapon will do, and he finds it in her past by unearthing an ugly sexual episode from her college days. Runyon is the kind of character an actor can sink his teeth into, and Gary Oldman bares his formidable fangs with relish. The actor's grin rivals that of the Cheshire cat, and when he devours chunks of rare steak he bites into the bloody meat as if consuming a deadly enemy.

 When photographs and witnesses emerge to give credence to the accusations of Hanson's hedonistic romp with multiple partners, the beleaguered Senator takes the moral high ground and insists that her private life is nobody's business but her own. The situation grows nasty, with quiet blackmail, calculated leaks to the news media and an FBI investigation. The way the game is played today, no major political figure can expect to have a private life, and it seems Hanson is fighting a losing cause.

Before the battle field clears, a homicide is uncovered, a few careers have been advanced, others have gone down in flames, and some key questions have been posed: Are principles to be used only when they are convenient? In politics, do the same standards apply to men and women? 

Rod Lurie directs his own smart script with flair, and though there's plenty of cynicism about Capitol ways and means, the fast-paced The Contender is flavored with the old-fashioned idealism that marked films like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Senator Hanson is savvy about how the system works and is hardly the kind of political naïf James Stewart played in that Frank Capra gem. Like him, though, she has at the core of her being an unquestioning belief in democracy's promise and nobility.  Joan Allen's subtly shaded performance as the brainy and determined Hanson strikes all the right notes. A cool, polished pol, she is a woman with real blood, not ice water, in her veins. Played with genial charm by Jeff Bridges, President Evans is an expansive and assured man who  delights in his power and knows how and when to use it. Together, Bridges and Allen make a dream ticket.

They've got my vote. 


"Tell This Story''

I Hope You Have a Good Life by Campbell Armstrong
(Crown; 248 pages; $20)

It's a staple of afternoon talk shows. The camera moves in for a close-up of the tearful faces of a mother and the now grown child she had long ago given up for adoption. They are meeting for the first time after many years, and the studio audience sighs approval and applauds while the host basks in smug benevolence and keen appreciation of high ratings.

There is something insensitive about scheduling an encounter like this--the uniting of two souls who have longed often without hope to find the other--for public display in a time slot between commercials and under the glare of television lights. How refreshing, then, to read "I Hope You Have a Good Life", a deeply moving account of one mother and her daughter who discover each other after a lifetime apart. 

Their joy in discovering one another, however, is overshadowed by tragedy. The story begins in 1955 when Eileen Altman, a teen-ager from Glasgow, traveled with her parents to the northern English seaside town of Scarborough and gives birth to an illegitimate baby.

It is to be a family secret. She is to give up the child and resume a normal life as if nothing had happened. Just as it had with countless other young women, the stigma of being an unwed mother had brought Eileen and her family to that wrenching decision.

Whispering "I love you. I hope you have a good life,'' to the infant she named Barbara, Eileen surrendered the child to an adoption agency. Putting the episode behind her--or thinking she has done so--Eileen moved to London and eventually married Campbell Armstrong, a struggling writer. They wind up living in Arizona, the parents of three boys, but the marriage breaks apart, and Armstrong leaves for Ireland with a new wife. 

In 1977, Eileen is diagnosed with inoperable tumors in both lungs, and in the coming days Armstrong and their sons rally to her side. At the same time, and thousands of miles away, Barbara is nearing the end of a long and seemingly hopeless pursuit of the woman who gave birth to her more than 40 years ago.

The task is even more urgent because Barbara, married and the mother of three children, is herself undergoing treatment for cancer. Her search is rewarded when she locates Eileen's brother and he agrees to forward his sister a letter from Barbara. Waiting anxiously for a reply, Barbara answers the phone one evening to hear, finally, "This is your mother.''  As soon as she can, Barbara travels to Phoenix. Armstrong describes their first meeting: "Without hesitation, without awkwardness, without words, the two women clutched each other in a flurry of tears and happiness and relief. Barbara had found the place where she belonged: her mother's arms. All her life had been leading to this moment of reconciliation.'' 

Over the next months the long-separated daughter becomes a mainstay for Eileen and a bulwark for the family. Throughout Eileen's pain-filled illness and death, the three brothers, their father and the newfound sister, draw close in sorrow and in determination to care for Eileen through the final days. Courageous in life, Eileen is equally so as she faces death. One of her last requests was to Armstrong. "Tell this story,'' she urged him, and he has done so admirably. "I Hope You Have a Good Life" is a meditation on losing the people we love and a heartbreaking tribute to two remarkable women. 

And Consider This


Holy Day, Holiday by Alexis McCrossen
(Cornell University Press; 209 pages; $39.95)

On any given Sunday in America, the secular and the sacred meet -- some might even say they collide -- and it's been true for a long time. "Holy Day, Holiday" by Alexis McCrossen, an assistant professor of history at Southern Methodist University, is an examination of how the "day of rest'' evolved, and it's a useful overview of social changes that the way we live and work today.

Hard now to realize how important Sunday loomed in the 19th century. A Civil War major general foresaw that wealth and even lives lost in the conflict would be replaced, but "if our American Sabbath is lost it can never be destroyed, and all is lost.'' The reaction to the Sunday opening of the Boston Public Library in 1872 was to outraged opponents evidence of civilization's decline.

Gradually, McCrossen explains, Sunday became domesticated.  It was Dad's day to be with the family, and in the larger culture, home and the Sabbath were inextricably linked. "Heaven,'' she notes, ''was pictured as a domestic paradise, an idealization that emerged out of the emphasis on the home as a sphere devoted to purification and uplift. An increased value on healthful excursions in the out of doors -- the now vanished tradition al Sunday drive, for example -- blurred lines between rest and recreation. Always, the responsibility for uplifting and ennobling Sunday fell on women, and so did the labor of preparing the huge dinner in the middle of the day. Ultimately, and not surprising in a capitalist country,  commercialization transformed the Lord's Day, and the result is sermons in the morning, shopping and a Super Bowl in the afternoon. Progress?

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