Goody-bye, Polly Bergen, and thanks for the laughs!

Polly Bergen has died. One of my favorite funny ladies. And a wonderful singer, too.

Here are some of my favorite moments with her: film clips, TV appearances and recordings. In memory of a grand dame, always outspoken, genuine and entertaining.

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International TV

I don’t know about you, but apart from classic TV made in the US, I’ve always enjoyed exploring shows from other countries, predominantly from Australia and New Zealand, Canada, Israel, South America and Europe. Pride & Prejudice made me fall in love with Colin Firth in 1995, Bleak House turned me into a Dickens addict 10 years later and that same year, Slings & Arrows reassured me that my stage experiences were not unique. Some of these international shows have since been made available on DVD, others were remade in the States including The Bridge, The Killing, Hatufim (US: Homeland), Be Tipul (US:In Treatment) , Mistresses and House of Cards.

It’s a matter of personal taste whether or not you like a reboot. In some cases I did not, in others I did. No matter how much I have liked (or disliked) an original show though, the remake often missed a crucial ingredient, something the American version never seems to quite get. It’s not only the appeal of a foreign setting and culture or the sound of a different language, it’s the different approach to storytelling, or better, differing aesthetics. Each year, the market is flooded by American productions with silly or crude characters and storylines that all too often jump the shark. Despite this unfortunate development (unfortunate at least to me, not the industry itself it seems), my heart beats for a good TV series and I’m happy that this up-coming season, two new American productions actually got my attention: Madam Secretary starring Téa Leonie and Matthew Perry’s update of The Odd Couple.

Madam Secretary may fill a gap I’ve longed to fill since The West Wing ended, The Good Wife lost its vibe and The Newsroom did not live up to my expectations. Judging by the first look trailer, this show may be my kind of treat, the kind of show that has the potential follow into the footsteps of my favorite Danish series, Borgen.

Borgen has what a lot of international shows of my liking have in common: a wonderful cast, a smart female character, crafty writers, witty dialogue, intelligent storylines and a distinctive design. For three seasons, Borgen was highly addictive without leaning on the soapy side like Britain’s Downton Abbey. That’s not to say I wouldn’t enjoy ITV’s period drama, Maggie Smith is starring in it after all. But given the choice, I prefer stories without unnecessary malice or personal drama blown out of proportion.

James Garner

When I heard the news about James Garner’s death, I was unable to make an entry on Talking Classics. However, I was saddened by the news but glad to have come across a good selection of his work since.

He was one of those actors who always entertained me, on television and on the silver screen. I liked him on Maverick and The Rockford Files, loved seeing him in multiple Westerns or quarreling with Doris Day. I enjoyed him alongside Julie Andrews, guest starring on shows such as Chicago Hope or as a regular on 8 Simple Rules. As an old man, he made me smile in Space Cowboys and cry in The Notebook. In interviews, he always came across as a likable human being, as someone who did not take his career for granted or saw himself as the center of the universe. He was married once, for 58 years, an avid sports fan and a veteran of the Korean War. He worked several jobs before he started acting at the age of 25 without formal training but a lot of life experience instead. For his natural talent, he was rewarded with an Academy Award nomination, three Golden Globes and two Emmy awards.

On July 19, James Garner died at the age of 86 in his home in Los Angeles. He will long be remembered for his genuine career as well as his support for the University of Oklahoma – and, thanks to the internet, for the smart and funny things he had to say about it.

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Flick Favorites

For all of you who enjoy movies set in bygone times, films with strong female leads, I bring a list of recommendations. Period dramas I have enjoyed for their wardrobe, décor and cinematic style. Films I like to revisit for their characters and storylines. Films I have enjoyed for their music and cast. Films released in recent years or back in the 1990s.

  1. Agora, starring Rachel Weisz as Hypatia, a female mathematician, philosopher and astronomer in late 4th-century
  2. Anna and the King, starring Jodi Foster as Anna Leonowens, an English school teacher in Siam in the late 19th century
  3. Being Julia, starring Anette Bening as Julia Lambert, a popular actress in London in the late 1930s
  4. Doubt, starring Meryl Streep and Amy Adams as two nuns in 1960s New York (Bronx)
  5. Driving Miss Daisy, starring Jessica Tandy as Daisy Werthan, a resolute widow in the 1960-70s
  6. Enchanted April, starring Miranda Richardson, Polly Walker, Joan Plowright and others as a bunch of English ladies who spent their holidays in Italy in the 1920s
  7. Fried Green Tomatoes, starring Mary Stuart Masterson and Mary-Louise Parker as two friends who are mastering life in the Great Depression
  8. The Great Debaters, starring Jurnee Smollett as Samantha Booke, the first female member of her college’s debate team, set in the mid 1930s
  9. A Little Princess, starring Liesel Matthews as Sara Crewe, a lovely rich girl who loses everything when her father dies in WWI
  10. Miss Potter, starring Renée Zellweger as Beatrix Potter, the famous writer and creator of Peter Rabbit
  11. Out of Africa, starring Meryl Streep as Karen Blixen, A Danish lady who emigrates to Africa in the early 20th century
  12. Paradise Road, starring Glenn Close, Julianna Margulies, Frances McDormand and many others as female POW in Sumatra during WWII
  13. Tea with Mussolini, starring Joan Plowright, Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Lily Tomlin and Cher as five expatiates in Italy in the 1930s through 40s

This list, of course, is far from complete. So whatever you miss, please feel invited to share your favorite flick with a strong female lead! :)

A New Vice

As a kid, growing up, I always swapped books with my grandma. Together, we devoured Agatha Christie, especially her books with Miss Marple as the clever leading lady. Then, I fell for Perry Mason. With more than ninety published cases, I still haven’t managed to read all of him.The same goes for J.B. Fletcher and the murders she stumbled into in Cabot Cove. Now, a new character has won my heart: Guido Brunetti, the refined and sightly Commissario. Venice, his daily companion, is the distinctive home for his family, his friends and cases. A place more than an attraction swarmed by millions of tourists each year, pestered by oversized cruise ships and aqua alta. A town as unique as Brunetti himself, used by his creator as a main character. Venice, La Serenissima, the trading town crossed by canals and surrounded by water. A decaying beauty built on logs and land. A lagoon and setting donna-leon_bwthat has inspired many authors, from Shakespeare to Thomas Mann. And, for twenty-two years now, also Donna Leon.

It was a streak of luck that brought Brunetti on paper and into our lives as readers. Donna Leon, once an English professor, has lived in Venice for more than a quarter century. Her passion for literature, opera and Venezia jumps out on every page of her bestselling novels now available in many languages but Italian (upon the author’s insistence). She never expected to write more than one, a crime novel set in Venice with a character she genuinely liked. Twenty-three books later, she’s now a grande dame of mystery and crime. A writer whose protagonists are erudite, sophisticated and often angry at the world and its crimes. It is an intoxicating mix for anyone who enjoys authenticity and reliable characters, for anyone who has a heart for history and critical thinking. Brunetti’s cases are never as grim and gloomy as many Scandinavian novels, but neither are they la dolce vita and cotton candy. For anyone who likes a descriptive style, Italian food and a dash of philosophy, Leon’s books are the perfect pastime told in a pleasant pace. But be warned, once you’ve picked up the first volume, you may never want spend another day without Brunetti and his Venetian life.

Hungry now for more on Donna Leon?! Follow the links below to dive into her world.

To a Special Lady

Today, my grandmother would have celebrated her 97th birthday. Ninety-seven, the number alone sounds impressive, considering how much has changed since she was born in 1916, it’s nearly impossible to grasp. By today’s standards, people lived in the Middle Ages at the height of WWI. Technology and everyday amenities were still in their infancy, at least in comparison to our technified lives. In the past 97 years, progress has been made on the expense of tradition and time. Depending on your preference, those changes have improved our lives or deteriorated them. No matter how you feel about this development, there’s one thing you may not even have noticed: we as humans have changed, too. And while I still grew up with grandfathers in hats and grandmothers with luscious curls, today’s children rarely get in contact with a generation who still dared to grow old with grace. Personally, I loved having grandparents who had clearly aged. Two people who loved spending their time with me without constantly rushing away. A grandma who cooked, a grandpa who took his afternoon nap in his favorite wingback chair. Two people from a different generation who, from time to time, demanded quietude and patience, but made me laugh like no one else. They taught me things my parents couldn’t, spoiled me without forgetting to remind me of their rules and instilled the desire in me to be a better person. As a child I remember seeing many other sets of grandparents like mine in the streets. Old ladies with handbags full of helpful necessities and grandpas who used their umbrellas as canes until it started to rain. Today, I miss seeing that image: old ladies dressed to a tee, their hair as perfect as their demeanor. I can honestly say, I never heard my grandma using foul language or swearing, no matter how bad a day she may have had. I know that’s an ideal memory but also the childhood I was granted to have. It may be a special bond only grandparents share with their grandchildren, dulcified by the touch of an outgoing generation who grew up in a time so different from the world we are now living in. All those gentlemen and ladies, with their attitude, lessons and style, I love them dearly, the few representatives who are still gracing us with their presence. I really wish we would listen to them more closely and wouldn’t allow their children to take claim to all the positive changes we’ve benefited from in the past decades. So, on my grandma’s birthday, here’s my toast to all my much-admired ladies, those who are still with us and those who live on in my memories. Although today it isn’t always easy to see through, you have taught me so much about being a lady – how to present myself to others and myself, and most importantly, how to be modest in bad times and grateful when the sun is shining again. It’s something I value more deeply the older I get, a lesson I hope to be able to pass on to the next generation with the same kind of love, respect and dedication I was given by my grandma, my all-time favorite lady.