Critic’s Notebook: Cliff Huxtable Was Bill Cosby’s Sickest Joke


“Just like us” was the dream of the show, right? “Best behavior” blackness. That’s one way to think about it, the cynical, uncharitable, myopic way, the way you’d think about it if you wanted to psychologize Bill Cosby as Cliff Huxtable.

I couldn’t have known how vertiginous the entire Huxtable project was. I was, like, 10, 13, 15 years old when the show was a thing. But eventually, I could see that Cliff became a play for respectability. This is how you comport yourself among white people, young black child. Take a little bit of Howard with you on your way to Harvard. But then, in 2004, at an NAACP ceremony commemorating 50 years since the Brown v. Board of Education decision, he gave the notorious “Pound Cake” speech, where prodding for a particular kind of self-betterment turned tsk-y. He compared incarcerated black men to jailed civil rights activists, the apples and oranges of the black criminal-justice crisis. He ruminated on names that didn’t seem, to him, like Bill.

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Mr. Cosby in 1966, the year he won an Emmy for “I Spy.”

Credit
Max B. Miller/Archive Photos, via Getty Images

“We are not Africans,” he said. “Those people are not Africans, they don’t know a damned thing about Africa. With names like Shaniqua, Shaligua, Mohammed, and all that crap and all of them are in jail.” Maybe this was Cliff unplugged — and unhinged. Mohammed? But it was a dare to flirt with distance, to reconsider all those applications I filed, to see Bill Cosby as someone who, despite hours of comedy like “Bill Cosby Is Not Himself These Days” and “Bill Cosby: Himself,” might not be willing or able to see who “himself” actually is. I called this a speech, but he performed it like another standup special.

This is the heavy thing about this verdict. The sorting of the ironies has been left to us. Mr. Cosby made blackness palatable to a country historically conditioned to think the worst of black people. And to pull that off, he had to find a morally impeccable presentation of himself and his race. This is what Sidney Poitier, his friend and movie partner, was always up against: inhabiting the superhumanly unimpeachable. But Mr. Cosby might have managed to pull a fast one, using his power and wealth to become the predator that white America mythologized in a campaign to terrorize, torture and kill black people for centuries. Mr. Cosby told lots of jokes. This was his sickest one.

Mr. Cosby’s guilty verdict happens to fall during a week in which Kanye West brought a lot of people a lot more grief, not with new music but with a blizzard of tweets that included an expressed affinity for President Trump, right down to wearing a Make America Great Again cap of his own. Mr. West began his career as a kind of black-sheep Huxtable. (His first album was “The College Dropout.”) But he eventually gathered a sense of politics — racialized, pro-black politics. And then he married into the Kardashian family and things got as vivid and incoherent as one of Cliff’s Van Den Akker sweaters. This is how you get a blistering indictment of racial closed-mindedness like 2013’s “Black Skinhead” but also an embrace of people who’ve been reluctant to shame white supremacists.

This seems like a reasonable moment to wonder whether the Huxtable mold is one that needs breaking — or at least expansion. Mr. West presents a new vexation that’s the opposite of Mr. Cosby’s stringent black conservatism. He can be offensive and rude and self-aggrandizing. But that mind-set also feels like a way to move beyond America’s Dad. Disrespectability politics.

We’re in a moment of cleaving terrible people from their great work. It’s a luxury conundrum, one that feels like a mockery of tremendous human suffering. With Mr. Cosby, though, these are questions worth seriously considering. How do I, at least, cleave this man from the man he seduced me into becoming?

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Verne Troyer, Mini-Me in Austin Powers Movies, Dies at 49


On April 6, 2017, Mr. Troyer wrote on Instagram that he had battled alcohol addiction in the past and that he was voluntarily checking himself into a treatment center. “While it’s not always been an easy fight, I’m willing to continue my fight day by day,” he wrote.

He was hospitalized this month after the police and emergency medical services responded to a call at his Hollywood home, USA Today reported.

Verne Jay Troyer was born on Jan. 1, 1969, in Sturgis, Mich.

Mr. Troyer’s movie debut came in the 1994 film “Baby’s Day Out.”

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Mr. Troyer, left, as Mini-Me, and Mike Myers as Austin Powers in the 2002 movie “Austin Powers in Goldmember.”

Credit
Melinda Sue Gordon/New Line Cinema

In a 2012 interview, Mr. Troyer said he was working for Sprint in the customer service department in 1993 when a friend of his, the president of Little People of America, told him the movie’s producers were looking for a stunt double for a baby.

“I guess they searched worldwide and couldn’t find anyone,” Mr. Troyer told HollywoodChicago.com, an entertainment news website. Mr. Troyer, who said he never took formal acting lessons, was offered the job two days later.

Mr. Troyer, the son of Amish parents, said he never regarded his size as an impediment.

“I never looked at my size as a handicap, I felt like I fit in at school — I was even elected homecoming king,” he said in the interview.

In 2000 he shared an MTV Movie Award for “Best On-Screen Duo” with Mike Myers for his role in “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me.” As Mini-Me, he portrayed the protégé of Dr. Evil as played by Mr. Myers.

“I had no idea how big it would be,” Mr. Troyer said of the first Austin Powers movie in the interview. “When it blew up, it changed my life forever.”

He also appeared in “Men in Black” (1997), “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” (2000) and “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” (2009).

He made headlines in 2008 when he sued the celebrity news site TMZ and sought $20 million in damages for a sex tape Mr. Troyer said the website stole and posted online. His lawsuit said the tape was for his “own personal, private use.”

Mr. Troyer had a YouTube channel with more than half a million subscribers on which he frequently posted comedy skits. In his last video, posted three weeks ago, Mr. Troyer was in an armchair and talked about his pet peeves.

“Just because I’m small people think that they can come up to me and tap me on the head,” he said. “I’m not a lap dog.”

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R. Lee Ermey, Profane Drill Sergeant in ‘Full Metal Jacket,’ Dies at 74


Ronald Lee Ermey was born on March 24, 1944, in Emporia, Kan., and moved to Washington State at age 11. He enlisted in the Marines immediately after graduating from high school and intended to spend decades in the military.

Much of the torrent of vicious language he unleashed in “Full Metal Jacket” was recalled from his days in boot camp and his 30 months as a Marine Corps drill instructor during the Vietnam War.

The clever, if profane, tirades were of his own invention, Mr. Ermey told The New York Times in 1987.

“It was terrifying to those actors,” he said of the invective he spewed. “My objective was intimidation.”

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Mr. Ermey in Hoover, Ala., in 2012.

Credit
Joe Songer/AL.com, via Associated Press

Mr. Ermey’s 11-year career as a Marine was ended “by a rocket” in 1969, but he would not talk about the war for the Times article, saying: “If a person’s wife and children were killed in a terrible automobile accident, 20 years later it will bother him to talk about it.”

With shrapnel still lodged in his back and arm, Mr. Ermey spent four months in a hospital. Eventually, he moved to the Philippines, where he married, attended college briefly and acted in television commercials.

He is survived by his wife, Marianila Ermey; his brothers Jack Ermey and Terry Ermey; his children Kim Bolt, Rhonda Chilton, Anna Liza Cruz, Betty Ermey, Evonne Ermey and Clinton Ermey; and grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

By the late 1970s, Mr. Ermey landed one of his first movie roles, as a helicopter pilot in Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now.” He also served as a military adviser for the film.

Mr. Ermey told The Times he had given up “a good job and more money” — a supervisory role at a nuclear power plant that was under construction — for the part in “Full Metal Jacket” a few years later.

“I love being in front of the camera,” he said. “I get to play cowboy.”

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Russell Crowe Holds a ‘Divorce’ Auction (‘Gladiator’ Stuff Included)


Also on offer: a codpiece, a fully functioning copy of a Roman chariot, a wooden sword, a pair of leather wrist cuffs and life-size prop horses.

Mr. Crowe won a Best Actor Oscar for the film.

Fit to Dress a Star

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The costume worn by Mr. Crowe as Capt. Jack Aubrey in “Master and Commander.”

Credit
Ben Rushton/EPA, via Shutterstock

The actor tweeted that he was putting 29 watches on the block, including a yellow-gold Rolex at a high-end estimate of 50,000 Australian dollars.

He told The Financial Times this year: “The first watch that I can remember having was a black on black Swatch.” But he said, “You could say my film career began with a fake Cartier. I wore it until the gold flaked off.”

He added, “Even though it was fake, it gave me a lot of confidence.”

Also displayed in all its glory is his costume from the 2003 period drama “Master and Commander,” in which Mr. Crowe plays Capt. Jack Aubrey, who commands the British Royal Navy frigate Surprise as it hunts down a formidable French vessel off the South American coast during the Napoleonic Wars.

Posters From a Stellar Career

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Guitars owned by the actor.

Credit
Ben Rushton/EPA, via Shutterstock

Some critics say Mr. Crowe turned in some of his finest work in “Gladiator” and 1997’s “L.A. Confidential,” in which he played Bud, a block-headed but principled cop caught up in a torrid love triangle with a call girl played by Kim Basinger and a fellow police officer played by Guy Pearce.

Posters from his movies were expected to fetch 500 to 2,500 Australian dollars.

The actor — who has also performed as a rock singer and guitarist, with bands called 30 Odd Foot of Grunts and The Ordinary Fear of God — was also selling a trove of guitars from the 1950s onward, along with a New York-made Martin acoustic model dating to 1870 and estimated to fetch up to 100,000 Australian dollars.

There was another musical memento, too: The 1986 Grammy Award won by Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Sam Phillips, Rick Nelson and Chips Moman, for interviews from the “Class of ’55 Recording Session.” Estimated value: 200,000 to 300,000 Australian dollars.

Quirky items include Mr. Crowe’s neo-Nazi boots from the 1992 movie “Romper Somper”; a purple double-breasted suit worn by Mr. Crowe in the 1995 film “Virtuosity”; a collection of cricket memorabilia, including a New Zealand Test cricket “200 Club” bat; diamond rings, necklaces and earrings.

Items for Fat Wallets

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A 2008 custom chopper motorcycle designed and made for Mr. Crowe by Orange County Choppers, in the colors of the South Sydney Rabbitohs rugby league team.

Credit
Ben Rushton/EPA, via Shutterstock

• A collection of 20th-century Australian art, including paintings by Charles Blackman and Sidney Nolan.

• Motorbikes, including one valued at 2.3 million Australian dollars.

• A 2001 Mercedes-Benz S500. Estimated value: 15,000 to 25,000 Australian dollars.

“One of Russell Crowe’s personal cars,” a note next to the car says, “this vehicle also served as one of the wedding cars on the day of his marriage to Danielle Spencer on 7 April 2003.”

The event will also raise funds for the A.C.M.F. charity, which provides free music education and instruments to disadvantaged and indigenous children and youth at risk in Sydney. It was streamed live on the actor’s Facebook page.

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Is Diego Boneta Mexico’s Next Big Hollywood Star?


“Maybe I wasn’t the best singer, but I was a performer,” said Mr. Boneta, who was soon rocking stadiums and opening for Hilary Duff. “I loved performing for huge crowds. It’s like people jumping out of a plane to get that adrenaline rush.”

After the visit to the presidential palace, Mr. Boneta climbed back into an armored Chevrolet Suburban flanked by two bodyguards (a typical mode of travel for notables and the business elite in Mexico, he said) and headed for lunch at El Cardenal, a venerable restaurant nearby that offers traditional dishes like escamoles (fried ant larvae).

The actor smiled as he scooped a generous spoonful over guacamole to form a taco. “Mexican caviar,” he said. “Very buttery.”

Dangling around his neck was an escapulario (a gold religious medallion) that belonged to a grandfather he never met, Otto Boneta, who was a songwriter and a psychiatrist. (Pope Francis blessed the medallion, Mr. Boneta said, when he performed alongside others during a papal visit to Mexico City in 2016.)

The music gene, it seems, skipped generations. Mr. Boneta’s parents, Lauro González and Astrid Boneta, are engineers. (His younger siblings, Natalia and Santiago, are studying at Duke University.)

“I’m the black sheep,” he said.

Diego Boneta – The Hurt (Official Video) Video by DiegoBonetaVEVO

Indeed, Mr. Boneta left school in fifth grade, and starred in a string of youth-oriented telenovelas, including “Alegrijes y Rebujos” and “Rebelde,” a “Glee”-style drama about a group of anthem-belting private school students. During his tenure on that show, Mr. Boneta also cut his first album, “Diego,” which included the hit single “Responde.”

(Looking to capitalize on his rising profile from “Scream Queens,” he released a bilingual EP in 2015 that included a Gene Vincent-style roots rocker single, “The Hurt,” sung in English.)

“There are no child labor laws here,” he said. “I was working Monday through Sunday, probably 17 to 18 hours a day sometimes. Christmas was a half-day off.”

Hollywood Bound

When Mr. Boneta was 16, the family moved to Los Angeles, in part to be closer to Hollywood. While he found no shortage of work, he learned that there was not much of a pipeline for Mexican actors.

As the #OscarsSoWhite movement showed, many obstacles remain. While Latinos comprise 18 percent of the population of the United States, Latino actors account for only about 3 percent of the speaking roles in American films, according to a 2017 study released by the Media, Diversity, & Social Change Initiative at USC Annenberg.

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Mr. Boneta as Drew Boley in the hair-metal musical “Rock of Ages.”

Credit
David James/Warner Brothers Pictures

But Latino actors, he said, also lack a support network. “In Hollywood, I have a lot of Australian friends, and they’ll have their Aussie friends sleep on their couch,” he said. “I was in a movie with Sam Worthington, and he was telling me stories about how he had helped the Hemsworth brothers, and before that, Russell Crowe helped him. Same thing with the Brits — ‘the wider the door, the more we fit through.’ It’s a different mentality.”

On the positive side, three Mexican directors have won four out of five of the most recent Academy Awards for Best Picture: Alfonso Cuarón in 2013, Guillermo del Toro this year, and Alejandro G. Iñárritu two years in a row.

“The Mexican directors are killing it right now,” he said. “Mexican actors should be, too.”

It is an open question whether “Luis Miguel” will enhance Mr. Boneta’s Hollywood clout to the point that he brings along other Latino hopefuls in his wake.

Although the show is in Spanish, that is hardly a deal killer in the streaming landscape of 2018, where foreign shows like “Narcos” (bilingual, with subtitles) and “Dark,” (German, available with dubbed English or subtitles) have become binge-watch favorites for Americans on Netflix — a point likely not lost on the very Hollywood producer of “Luis Miguel,” Mark Burnett (“The Voice,” “Survivor”).

Mr. Miguel himself has global appeal in Spain, Italy and even China, Mr. Boneta said, in addition to the sizable market in the United States. And the story is familiar turf to fans of no-holds-barred music biopics like “Walk the Line” and “Ray.”

“On the one side, you’ve got the ‘Wolf of Wall Street’ party scenes,” Mr. Boneta said. “The fame, sex and the excess, the drugs, mixed with a really dark family drama.”

If nothing else, the meaty role promises to vault Mr. Boneta far beyond the teen-idol trap.

Looking ahead in his own career, Mr. Boneta said, he looks to Tom Cruise, who remains a mentor, as an inspiration.

“One of the best pieces of advice he gave me is, ‘Set your goal and work backward,’” Mr. Boneta said. “If you want to be a big action star, you have to learn how to ride motorcycles, fly planes and learn to do your own stunts.”

Come to think of it, “Diego Boneta, action star” has a nice ring to it. “A short-term goal that I have, and I know this may sound cheesy, is being the first Latin Marvel superhero, whose character isn’t necessarily Latin,” he said.

“Black Panther,” after all, already proved that a nonwhite superhero movie can attain blockbuster status.

“How about ‘Pantera Negra’?” he said with a smile.

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Q&A: Christine Lahti’s Tales of Feminism, Sex and Aging in Hollywood


Every mother will appreciate how one of the finest stage actresses of her time was told by her children that her voice was disgusting, and forbidden from singing and dancing in front of them. You write: “Until the little control freaks go off to college, you will be in a song-and-dance straitjacket.”

LAHTI: I had to go full-awkward, because so much of what is imperfect about me is awkward and embarrassing — and hopefully funny.

Your book seemed to start off as a traditional memoir, and then it morphed into something else — an awakening of sorts that centers on what it means to be a first-wave feminist. Is that what happened?

LAHTI: I started writing, not knowing what it was going to be. My daughter was sick of me complaining about, you know, “There’s no jobs for women over 50, I didn’t know there was a shelf life for actresses.” Obviously, I was a little naïve. And she said, “Stop complaining, stop being dependent on men hiring you, and write some of your stories down.”

This book is largely about how you evolved as a feminist, which included the rejection of the family model you grew up with: doctor dad beloved by his patients but remote to his family; mother who was sort of an iconic 1950s housewife …

LAHTI: … who I judged so harshly. I think she was a product of that internalized misogyny many women feel but after her kids left the house she had another life — she became a professional painter, and a pilot. None of us have to be stuck.

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You recount stories of Broadway and Hollywood that remind us of why the #MeToo movement was inevitable — for example, the day a casting agent assured you a role, when all you had to do was have sex with the directors. Did he really say it that casually?

LAHTI: Yes, as if it was an understood thing that I would automatically do that. It wasn’t even couched in a joke or an apology. It was really just, “Yeah, here’s what you have to do.”

It was something that we all back then just knew we had to navigate through. And it sounds benign; it’s not like they even touched me. But these experiences aren’t benign. I think that they break you in some way. Especially when I was young, and I was full of hope and optimism about my worth as a human being and my talent as an actress. All that was disregarded. It dehumanized me in a way that devastated me.

But that story was very telling. You walked home 75 blocks raging, vowing no one would every treat you that way again.

LAHTI: And by the time I get home and some man I want to see calls and asks me out, I can’t go because I feel like I weigh five pounds too much. That sort of sums up a lot of stuff about how women go through life.

Did you still feel vulnerable, even after you got more power in your career? How did you cope with unwanted attention?

LAHTI: Early on in my career, if I wanted the job, I would giggle and flirt back, because I wanted the job. But I would leave feeling dirty and disgusted with myself and powerless — and dehumanized. But I never had anyone go so far that I would have to say, “No,” and, “Zip up your zipper.” Maybe I was tall and a little scary or something.

You talk a lot about aging in Hollywood, and you write wonderfully about your own struggles about getting plastic surgery: the appointments with the doctor, the breaking of appointments. And you leave us with a cliffhanger. What did you do?

LAHTI: I haven’t done it yet, but the jury’s still out. Yeah, you know, I see cutting, and that’s all I see on the screen. I see people with face-lifts, and I’m almost just looking at, “O.K., wow, that’s a pretty good one. Oh, but her lips aren’t quite right. I’m looking at the “work,” not the acting. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one that you can’t tell.

It’s a lot of pressure to resist. How many women in Hollywood haven’t had stuff done?

LAHTI: I think I’m the only one! (Her publicist emails later, to make it very clear that she was joking.) And by the way, I’m not judge-y about anybody who does it, because I still might. It’s just that I resent the pressure to do it. I resent the need women feel to stay young to be relevant. I resent all that. And I want, somehow, to be valued for other things. I still want that.

You won an Academy Award for directing your 1995 short film, “Lieberman in Love.” What do you want to be doing now?

LAHTI: I want to either direct or act in movies about women. That’s what I want to do. I have a couple of scripts I want to direct. And I have a series that I’m developing about an older woman — everyone wants to put her out to pasture — who’s trying to find a way. She fights valiantly, and sometimes foolishly, to stay visible. It’s a half-hour dramedy.

Many of us want to see more of you onscreen. And P.S., before I go, can I just say you offer one of the greatest acting tips of all time?

LAHTI: I do?

When you hate someone you’re working with. “Sometimes when I have to look adoringly into someone’s eyes, I imagine they’re the eyes of Nellie, my golden retriever.”

LAHTI: Oh yes! It works. And I’m sure the ones who hated me thought about their dog, or maybe their favorite sports team.

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Q&A: Christine Lahti’s Tales of Feminism, Sex and Aging in Hollywood


Every mother will appreciate how one of the finest stage actresses of her time was told by her children that her voice was disgusting, and forbidden from singing and dancing in front of them. You write: “Until the little control freaks go off to college, you will be in a song-and-dance straitjacket.”

LAHTI: I had to go full-awkward, because so much of what is imperfect about me is awkward and embarrassing — and hopefully funny.

Your book seemed to start off as a traditional memoir, and then it morphed into something else — an awakening of sorts that centers on what it means to be a first-wave feminist. Is that what happened?

LAHTI: I started writing, not knowing what it was going to be. My daughter was sick of me complaining about, you know, “There’s no jobs for women over 50, I didn’t know there was a shelf life for actresses.” Obviously, I was a little naïve. And she said, “Stop complaining, stop being dependent on men hiring you, and write some of your stories down.”

This book is largely about how you evolved as a feminist, which included the rejection of the family model you grew up with: doctor dad beloved by his patients but remote to his family; mother who was sort of an iconic 1950s housewife …

LAHTI: … who I judged so harshly. I think she was a product of that internalized misogyny many women feel but after her kids left the house she had another life — she became a professional painter, and a pilot. None of us have to be stuck.

Photo

You recount stories of Broadway and Hollywood that remind us of why the #MeToo movement was inevitable — for example, the day a casting agent assured you a role, when all you had to do was have sex with the directors. Did he really say it that casually?

LAHTI: Yes, as if it was an understood thing that I would automatically do that. It wasn’t even couched in a joke or an apology. It was really just, “Yeah, here’s what you have to do.”

It was something that we all back then just knew we had to navigate through. And it sounds benign; it’s not like they even touched me. But these experiences aren’t benign. I think that they break you in some way. Especially when I was young, and I was full of hope and optimism about my worth as a human being and my talent as an actress. All that was disregarded. It dehumanized me in a way that devastated me.

But that story was very telling. You walked home 75 blocks raging, vowing no one would every treat you that way again.

LAHTI: And by the time I get home and some man I want to see calls and asks me out, I can’t go because I feel like I weigh five pounds too much. That sort of sums up a lot of stuff about how women go through life.

Did you still feel vulnerable, even after you got more power in your career? How did you cope with unwanted attention?

LAHTI: Early on in my career, if I wanted the job, I would giggle and flirt back, because I wanted the job. But I would leave feeling dirty and disgusted with myself and powerless — and dehumanized. But I never had anyone go so far that I would have to say, “No,” and, “Zip up your zipper.” Maybe I was tall and a little scary or something.

You talk a lot about aging in Hollywood, and you write wonderfully about your own struggles about getting plastic surgery: the appointments with the doctor, the breaking of appointments. And you leave us with a cliffhanger. What did you do?

LAHTI: I haven’t done it yet, but the jury’s still out. Yeah, you know, I see cutting, and that’s all I see on the screen. I see people with face-lifts, and I’m almost just looking at, “O.K., wow, that’s a pretty good one. Oh, but her lips aren’t quite right. I’m looking at the “work,” not the acting. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one that you can’t tell.

It’s a lot of pressure to resist. How many women in Hollywood haven’t had stuff done?

LAHTI: I think I’m the only one! (Her publicist emails later, to make it very clear that she was joking.) And by the way, I’m not judge-y about anybody who does it, because I still might. It’s just that I resent the pressure to do it. I resent the need women feel to stay young to be relevant. I resent all that. And I want, somehow, to be valued for other things. I still want that.

You won an Academy Award for directing your 1995 short film, “Lieberman in Love.” What do you want to be doing now?

LAHTI: I want to either direct or act in movies about women. That’s what I want to do. I have a couple of scripts I want to direct. And I have a series that I’m developing about an older woman — everyone wants to put her out to pasture — who’s trying to find a way. She fights valiantly, and sometimes foolishly, to stay visible. It’s a half-hour dramedy.

Many of us want to see more of you onscreen. And P.S., before I go, can I just say you offer one of the greatest acting tips of all time?

LAHTI: I do?

When you hate someone you’re working with. “Sometimes when I have to look adoringly into someone’s eyes, I imagine they’re the eyes of Nellie, my golden retriever.”

LAHTI: Oh yes! It works. And I’m sure the ones who hated me thought about their dog, or maybe their favorite sports team.

Continue reading the main story

This Movie Romance Scandalized a Nation. Now It’s a Drama Onstage.


Last August, Mr. Wright sat at the desk in his home office in West Austin. On a computer monitor was a document opened to draft No. 78 of “Cleo.” He was preparing for the play’s September debut. Then Hurricane Harvey hit Houston in late August and damaged the Alley, prompting the delay.

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The actors Lisa Birnbaum and Richard Short will play Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in “Cleo,” Lawrence Wright’s play at the Alley Theater.

Credit
Lynn Lane

In those seven months, Mr. Wright wrote nine more drafts, all while serving as an executive producer for the new Hulu series based on “The Looming Tower” and completing a new book on Texas politics. “Cleo” is now a drastically different play than it was when Mr. Wright conceived it, yet the theme remains the same.

“It’s in some ways a disquisition on love, and how dangerous it is, and yet how essential,” Mr. Wright said. “We’re condemned to have this riotous, unsettling element in our natures and we don’t understand it.”

Initially, Mr. Wright had focused on the affair between Joseph Mankiewicz, the movie’s director and co-writer, and Rosemary Matthews, the script supervisor. He was intrigued with the intertwined destructive relationships at play on the set: from Antony and Cleopatra, whose relationship shook empires; to Burton and Taylor, whose relationship ripped apart their marriages and ignited the gossip pages; to that more prosaic boss-subordinate romance.

Change came when Mr. Balaban got involved about seven years ago. He had met Taylor a few times through the actress Maureen Stapleton, and persuaded Mr. Wright to redirect the emphasis to her and Burton, the obvious stars of the show.

The script still does feature Mankiewicz, an Oscar-winning filmmaker who became overwhelmed with the enormity of the movie, a budget-buster that threatened to bankrupt Fox. Also in supporting roles: Eddie Fisher, the singer and actor who was Taylor’s husband — her fourth — at the time, and Rex Harrison, the actor playing Caesar, whose ego took a toll as his role diminished in the growing shadow of Burton’s Mark Antony.

The actors Lisa Birnbaum and Richard Short portray Taylor and Burton. They were cast, Mr. Balaban said, for their ability to embody both tragedy and comedy, and because they resembled their characters without ever appearing to do impressions of them.

The play starts with Burton arriving drunk to the set, in Rome, to replace the actor Stephen Boyd, who was no longer available after production delays. The idea of using Burton came from Fisher, who unwittingly invited a snake into his own den, according to Mr. Wright.

Burton and Taylor couldn’t keep their cravings secret and the nascent paparazzi captured every blatant minute of their sunbathing and petting.

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“The passion and the lust just spilled out all over the world,” said Mr. Wright, who is best known for his reporting on Al Qaeda and on Scientology.

Credit
Ben Sklar for The New York Times

“There was outrage,” Mr. Wright said. “Nobody had ever seen this kind of thing happening in public before. The tabloids were full of ‘homewrecker.’ ”

The pope condemned the couple, and a congresswoman from Georgia proposed prohibiting Taylor, a naturalized U.S. citizen, from returning after filming. Fidelity was a tightly held American value, yet the pair persisted in flagrant defiance and, in Mr. Wright’s estimation, helped to spark the sexual revolution.

“The Richard Burton Diaries,” published in 2012, was crucial to understanding not only the dynamic between Burton and Taylor but also Burton’s light and dark sides. Mr. Wright’s research also included interviewing sources close to the movie.

“The play ends with a rather brutal scene — a big, knock-down, drag-out fight that you would think would tear Taylor and Burton apart but is actually what ends up cementing their relationship,” Mr. Balaban said. “We wanted to present something that was probably like what really happened with them.”

A 2016 reading of “Cleo” that was part of the Alley’s festival of new works inspired Gregory Boyd, the former artistic director, to stage a production. Mr. Wright is not, however, new to theater. In his career, he has written four plays that have been produced (“Camp David,” “Fallaci,” “Sonny’s Last Shot” and “Crackerjack”) and performed in two of his own one-man shows, “The Human Scale” and “My Trip to Al-Qaeda.”

“I’ve written movies, but typically with a movie, as soon as the director comes on, the last thing he wants is the writer around,” Mr. Wright said. “So you get kind of pushed out. In the theater, the playwright is the final authority, and I don’t mind that.”

On April 17, he will publish “God Save Texas: A Journey Into the Soul of the Lone Star State,” based on reporting he did for an article in The New Yorker. David Remnick, the magazine’s editor, asked Mr. Wright to explain his home state; the writer playfully reminded the editor that he gets paid by the word.

Mr. Remnick was willing to take the risk.

“The secret to Larry is that he writes only about what completely grabs his attention and imagination,” Mr. Remnick said. “Nothing obligatory, nothing on order. He does what he’s going to do. And the results are invariably amazing.”

Continue reading the main story

Encounters: The Actor and Comedian Jay Pharoah Channels ‘Sparta’ at the Gym


Realness is Mr. Pharoah’s specialty. A master impressionist, he can emulate the voices of more than 200 celebrities, including Eddie Murphy, Barack Obama and Nicolas Cage. He just added Jason Statham, and he has been working on Ms. Foy, too.

“I haven’t mastered that yet. But I got a little something,” he said.

“They call me — I’m not saying this, it’s the world saying this — arguably the best impressionist of our time,” he added, as he began a set of crunches.

Photo

Mr. Pharoah does bench presses.

Credit
Andrew White for The New York Times

He kept the impressions going during the workout, alternating among Arnold Schwarzenegger, Denzel Washington and Michael B. Jordan, as the villain Killmonger in “Black Panther.”

“I’m your king!” he said in a menacing accent, as he tensed for a dead lift. (Mr. Pharoah hasn’t quite mastered that one either.)

His favorite cardiovascular impression: Gerard Butler as King Leonidas in the battle flick “300.” “For Sparta,” he said, growling as he dragged a 300-pound sled behind him. “For Sparta,” Mr. Castaño answered him.

Mr. Pharoah kept growling until he could barely breathe. Had Mr. Castaño beaten the comedy out of it? “Nah,” Mr. Castaño said. “He’ll come back to it.” And Mr. Pharoah did, slipping into the Scottish accent during his chest presses.

“Young Spartan, I can lift way more than this,” he said.

When Mr. Pharoah wasn’t doing impressions, he joked around as himself. “Curls for girls,” he said during his biceps curls, admiring his veined arms in the mirror.

“I’m going on vacation,” he said. He hopes other vacationers will see him as a sex object. “I can’t wait. Thirst trap, thirst trap, walking thirst trap, gonna be crazy.”

Mr. Pharoah wouldn’t say where was he was going, since it was surprise for “somebody special.” (Sorry, ladies, the thirst trap is taken.)

After stretching with Mr. Castaño, he showered, spritzed with Versace Blue and changed into jeans, a denim shirt and a blingy cross and ankh. As he came out of the locker room, he rubbed himself with cocoa butter. “I get ashy,” he said.

Photo

After his session, Mr. Pharoah grabbed a post-workout meal at Just Salad.

Credit
Andrew White for The New York Times

You see, Mr. Pharoah wasn’t always such a thirst trap. He was a chubby boy growing up in Chesapeake, Va. “People did this thing with my chest, flipped up my man breasts,” he said. “Theater was an escape for me. People would adore me for the work.”

He landed on “Saturday Night Live” when he was 22, after an audition that included impressions of Eddie Murphy in a library, Chris Tucker in a mental hospital and Will Smith as a tour guide.

He created more characters there, including a straight-talking Pooh bear and a heavy-breathing high school principal. He was also outspoken about the show’s lack of black women. A year ago, in an interview with the radio station Hot 97, he spoke heatedly about the show’s typecasting of comedians: “They put people into boxes. And they want you to do what they expect you to do.”

He sounds more philosophical about the show these days. “‘Saturday Night Live’ was comedy college,” he said. “It’s good for exposure, but if you want to elevate yourself, you have to show everybody what you can do.”

He tried to show everybody on “White Famous,” a Showtime comedy about a black comedian, loosely based on Jamie Foxx, trying to crack mainstream Hollywood. The show received mixed reviews and was canceled after one season. “It still showed people my range,” Mr. Pharoah said.

He hopes “Unsane” will show people more of it. In the meantime, he’s working on a rap album (“It’s a whole journey,” he said) and writing a new comedy special. He is also trying “to get into ‘Black Panther 2,’” he said.

“I’m dead serious. Who can do an African accent? Me! Who can do any kind of accent? Me!”

“There’s so much more to Jay Pharoah. I’m a piñata, man. You hit me, I bust open with all this talent. You get a Reese’s and a Twix!” he said, naming a couple of candies his trainer won’t let him eat. “Oh snap”.

Continue reading the main story

Encounters: The Actor and Comedian Jay Pharoah Channels ‘Sparta’ at the Gym


Realness is Mr. Pharoah’s specialty. A master impressionist, he can emulate the voices of more than 200 celebrities, including Eddie Murphy, Barack Obama and Nicolas Cage. He just added Jason Statham, and he has been working on Ms. Foy, too.

“I haven’t mastered that yet. But I got a little something,” he said.

“They call me — I’m not saying this, it’s the world saying this — arguably the best impressionist of our time,” he added, as he began a set of crunches.

Photo

Mr. Pharoah does bench presses.

Credit
Andrew White for The New York Times

He kept the impressions going during the workout, alternating among Arnold Schwarzenegger, Denzel Washington and Michael B. Jordan, as the villain Killmonger in “Black Panther.”

“I’m your king!” he said in a menacing accent, as he tensed for a dead lift. (Mr. Pharoah hasn’t quite mastered that one either.)

His favorite cardiovascular impression: Gerard Butler as King Leonidas in the battle flick “300.” “For Sparta,” he said, growling as he dragged a 300-pound sled behind him. “For Sparta,” Mr. Castaño answered him.

Mr. Pharoah kept growling until he could barely breathe. Had Mr. Castaño beaten the comedy out of it? “Nah,” Mr. Castaño said. “He’ll come back to it.” And Mr. Pharoah did, slipping into the Scottish accent during his chest presses.

“Young Spartan, I can lift way more than this,” he said.

When Mr. Pharoah wasn’t doing impressions, he joked around as himself. “Curls for girls,” he said during his biceps curls, admiring his veined arms in the mirror.

“I’m going on vacation,” he said. He hopes other vacationers will see him as a sex object. “I can’t wait. Thirst trap, thirst trap, walking thirst trap, gonna be crazy.”

Mr. Pharoah wouldn’t say where was he was going, since it was surprise for “somebody special.” (Sorry, ladies, the thirst trap is taken.)

After stretching with Mr. Castaño, he showered, spritzed with Versace Blue and changed into jeans, a denim shirt and a blingy cross and ankh. As he came out of the locker room, he rubbed himself with cocoa butter. “I get ashy,” he said.

Photo

After his session, Mr. Pharoah grabbed a post-workout meal at Just Salad.

Credit
Andrew White for The New York Times

You see, Mr. Pharoah wasn’t always such a thirst trap. He was a chubby boy growing up in Chesapeake, Va. “People did this thing with my chest, flipped up my man breasts,” he said. “Theater was an escape for me. People would adore me for the work.”

He landed on “Saturday Night Live” when he was 22, after an audition that included impressions of Eddie Murphy in a library, Chris Tucker in a mental hospital and Will Smith as a tour guide.

He created more characters there, including a straight-talking Pooh bear and a heavy-breathing high school principal. He was also outspoken about the show’s lack of black women. A year ago, in an interview with the radio station Hot 97, he spoke heatedly about the show’s typecasting of comedians: “They put people into boxes. And they want you to do what they expect you to do.”

He sounds more philosophical about the show these days. “‘Saturday Night Live’ was comedy college,” he said. “It’s good for exposure, but if you want to elevate yourself, you have to show everybody what you can do.”

He tried to show everybody on “White Famous,” a Showtime comedy about a black comedian, loosely based on Jamie Foxx, trying to crack mainstream Hollywood. The show received mixed reviews and was canceled after one season. “It still showed people my range,” Mr. Pharoah said.

He hopes “Unsane” will show people more of it. In the meantime, he’s working on a rap album (“It’s a whole journey,” he said) and writing a new comedy special. He is also trying “to get into ‘Black Panther 2,’” he said.

“I’m dead serious. Who can do an African accent? Me! Who can do any kind of accent? Me!”

“There’s so much more to Jay Pharoah. I’m a piñata, man. You hit me, I bust open with all this talent. You get a Reese’s and a Twix!” he said, naming a couple of candies his trainer won’t let him eat. “Oh snap”.

Continue reading the main story