Saturday, December 26, 2015


Gerda Wegener and Lili Elbe, 1921

Actors soar in tender, fact-based transgender story The Danish Girl

What must it be like to feel that the body you were born into is the wrong gender? This cataclysmic emotional shift in identity is such a private matter, it seems near impossible to capture onscreen.

But Tom Hooper makes a valiant effort in The Danish Girl, the fact-based story of Danish landscape painter Einar Wegener, one of the first people known to have undergone sexual reassignment surgery in the 1920s, transitioning into a woman named Lili Elbe.

Although the spotlight is on Einar/Lili, the larger story Hooper tells is the evolving relationship between the painter and his wife, Gerda.

It is Gerda's journey, watching the husband she adores turn into someone else, and the choices she must face to accept and support him, that makes their story so engrossing.

Factor in a couple of splendidly nuanced performances from Eddie Redmayne, as Einar/Lili, and Alicia Vikander, as Gerda, and it all adds up to a moving, tender, and sometimes even wryly funny portrait of love and identity.

Vikander and Redmayne as Gerda and Einar: Oscar-bait
Scripted by Lucinda Coxson, the movie is adapted from the novel by David Ebershoff. The book is a fictionalized account, so it doesn't necessarily stick to the facts of the Wegeners' real lives.

 But as a work of fiction, this tale of sexual confusion and transition is told with compassion and clarity.
That magic moment: Einar poses for Gerda
In Copenhagen, 1926, Einar Wegener (Redmayne) is a successful painter of lovely, meticulous landscapes. His wife, Gerda (Vikander), is also a painter, but she can't get anyone in the local art community to take her portraits seriously. The two of them met in art school, married young, and enjoy a healthy, active, sex life and a playful sense of camaraderie.
Redmayne as Lili

 Rushing to finish a commissioned portrait one day, when her model is delayed, Gerda begs Einar to pose in a pair of silk stockings and satin slippers so she can paint his feet. The effect on Einar is immediate and electrifying, as an aspect of his personality he's been trying to suppress his whole life begins to assert itself.

It's no surprise that Redmayne tackles his role with persuasive delicacy. But Vikander (having a great year, after Ex Machina and Testament of Youth) is the real Oscar-bait for her tough, funny, sensitive Gerda. (Read more)

Hooper's film might have been even gutsier had he stuck closer to the truth of the Wegeners' lives. For one thing, the couple had already moved to Paris in 1912 to immerse themselves in the Bohemian art scene and escape the more conventional morality of Copenhagen society.
The real Lili, ca 1930: all girl

Gerda was the more successful artist, a magazine illustrator who became notorious for her decadent drawings and erotic female watercolors. Some biographies suggest that she an Lili lived openly as a lesbian couple in Paris. Lili certainly remained one of Gerda's favorite models.

(That's Gerda's portrait of the two of them at the top of this post.)

Gerda married another man (at Lili's insistence, according to some sources), when her marriage to Einar was legally annulled by King Christian X of Denmark after Einar's first surgery became public knowledge. By then, Lili had a male suitor she also hoped to marry.

Obviously, the shifting psychological currents between them must have been even more complex than in the film.

Sexual identity is a tricky and very personal subject. Hooper tells a simplified version of the story, but that he grapples with it at all, with so much reason and empathy, is satisfying indeed.
The real Gerda and Einar with one of Gerda's paintings

Tuesday, December 15, 2015


Ghost of Christmas Presents; did we need all that stuff?
Hands up, everyone who needs more stuff in their lives.

I didn't think so. This holiday time of year has become almost exclusively devoted to the acquisition of new stuff—the real reason for the season. Show them how much you love them—buy them more stuff!

Our house is already crammed to the rafters. We call them vintage collectibles—childhood toys and dolls, movie posters, books yet to be read, pieces of furniture no longer in use, random kitchen appliances, clothes and shoes unworn since the Clinton administration—but no matter how much lipstick you put on it, it's still stuff.

And instead of mindlessly accumulating more of it, we're ready to get rid of it.

So this year, Art Boy and I made the radical decision not to exchange holiday presents. We won't totally Grinch-out; we're going to bake cookies, hang stockings, play carols, and deck the halls. I'll even put up my infamous Nativity of Troll dolls.

But our season will be a lot more jolly without the frenzy and hysteria that usually comes with it—desperate trips to the mall, long check-out lines, frazzled clerks and fellow-shoppers. Worst of all is that awful feeling that you just can't keep up with the demands of the season, that you're going to run out of time before it all gets done.

"Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents," grumbles Jo March, lying on the rug, at the beginning of Little Women. But as the residents of Whoville can tell you, it doesn't really have to be about the presents. Not even the Grinch could keep Christmas from coming—presents or no.

The gift of space and time.
The impulse to bestow gifts on your loved ones is hard to resist. But maybe it's the nature of the gifts that has to change.

Instead of more stuff, Art Boy and I are giving ourselves the gift of space and time.

No, we haven't bought a Tardis. (Oh, if only we could!) But, as an alternative to stockpiling more things, we'll be devoting a few days to clearing out what we already have, and, hopefully, streamlining and sprucing up our space.

And the time we save by not shopping for more stuff can be better spent in so many other ways—like hanging out with friends and family, the kitties, and each other.

What better way to celebrate this most festive, yet reflective time of year? Hey, maybe I'll even get around to reading some of those old books...

Monday, December 14, 2015


Track Changes: editorial suggestions in blue, author whining in red.
I've been off the radar for a few weeks, and here's what I've learned: editing a book is not for sissies!

After writing two revisions of my next novel, Beast: A Love Story, for my smart and very thorough editor, Kaylan Adair at Candlewick, we were ready to move into the phase called Line Edits. I figured the hard part was over and I could cruise into what I consider the fun part —tinkering with a word here or there, reframing the occasional sentence, finishing up the details.


Gone are the days when editing was done the genteel way, with a red pencil on hard copy, making a few tweaks here and there. Now we have a torture device known as the Track Changes program, by which a writer and her editor a continent apart can communicate virtually on the pages of the ms itself—one page, one paragraph, and yes, one line at a time.

The editor reads through the ms and makes suggestions in the Comments column at the right. There's a sample of what it looks like, up top. Editorial suggestions in blue; my feeble responses in red.

For the author, scrolling through the story and encountering the Comments is like entering a minefield. A lot of suggestions are perfectly reasonable and easily fixed—if we both agree there's a problem. But you never know when one is going to blow up in your face.

Maybe she has a different interpretation of a character's personality or motives than I do. Maybe she wants to subtly alter the course of the story in a way that never occurred to me—hmmm, let me think about it. Maybe she wants to soften a scene that I think has to be tough, or reconsider a certain  sequence of events.

Editing, the old-fashioned way!
Maybe her idea is better than mine—as is often the case—or maybe not. The point is, every suggestion has to be thought over and dealt with. When I agree with one of her suggested changes, it has to be implemented, which often includes either minor tweaking or large tracts of rewriting. If I don't agree, or have any other issue, I can leave my own Comments in the margin, attempting to defend my decision.

Either way, there's a lot more writing involved, whether I'm altering the story itself or attempting to compose Comments that will make any kind of rational sense. At times, the very act of writing a Comment makes me think about my decision in a new way, leading to a new batch of changes. Maybe reading one of her Comments triggers a revelation that neither one of us thought of before.

Back to the keyboard!

It's a lot more work than I ever expected, which is why I've sort of dropped off the face of the earth these last few weeks. I would never do it if I didn't have so much confidence in Kaylan and her opinions, based on how much she loves this story.

What's great about the process is it's giving me the luxury to really pay attention to the story again, page by page, line by line. It's not an author vs. editor battle; it's a collaboration. Together, we're midwifing the best Beast he can be!

Tuesday, December 1, 2015


Screenwriter defies injustice in sharp, witty Trumbo

Bryan Cranston has come a long way since he played in A Doll's House and The Taming Of the Shrew with Shakespeare Santa Cruz onstage in the Festival Glen in 1992. He was a flustered TV sitcom dad for several seasons on Malcolm In the Middle.

And, oh yes, there's a little item in his résumé called Breaking Bad, for which he won four Emmys and a Golden Globe.

Cranston has also been making films for years, but rarely has he landed such a plummy starring role—and played it with such relish—as Dalton Trumbo, the blacklisted real-life Hollywood screenwriter at the center of Jay Roach's smart, incisive drama, Trumbo. Scripted by John McNamara, from the non-fiction book by Bruce Cook, it's a wildly entertaining plunge into the dark heart of anti-Communist witch-hunting in Hollywood during the 1940s and '50s, as experienced by one extremely savvy intended "victim" who had the guts, the brains, and the chutzpah to survive.

In 1947, at the height of a fruitful Hollywood career writing hit movies for the likes of Spencer Tracy and Ginger Rogers, Dalton Trumbo (Cranston) has just inked a deal with MGM to become the highest-paid screenwriter in the business. He and his wife, Cleo (Diane Lane, terrific, as always), and their three young children live on a gorgeous property in the Hollywood Hills.

Mirren and Cranston: she's on a mission
Then one day, he gets a subpoena from the House Un-American Committee to testify in Washington DC about alleged Communist "infiltration" of Hollywood.

Helen Mirren is wonderfully waspish as gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, who's on a mission to get "Commie traitors" out of Hollywood. John Goodman is hilarious as exploitation movie mogul Jack King, who's only too happy to hire Trumbo to churn out cheesy potboilers under an assumed name when no one else will give him work.

(According to my sources, the 1950 film noir classic, Gun Crazy was written by Trumbo for King Brothers Productions.)

The real-life Trumbo in his famous bathtub
Cranston plays Trumbo with an edgy, raging wit, pounding away at his typewriter with a cigarette holder in one hand and a glass of hooch nearby.

He edits in his bathtub with its makeshift desktop, literally cutting up the script with a scissors (in those pre-computer days), and re-pasting the scenes in better order on what looks like a long roll of shelf paper.

He's the heart of this sharp, frisky film for anyone interested in stories about writers, backstage Hollywood, or the (belated) triumph of reason over fear-mongering. (Read more)