Late Greats

December 16th, 2014 by Max Allan Collins
Eli Wallach

In their December 19th issue, Entertainment Weekly singled out twelve “irreplaceable legends” who passed in 2014. A supplemental small-print list of 66 celebrities who also passed in 2014 is provided, with a sentence of so of description for each.

It would be ungracious (even for me) to suggest that some of the EW chosen are less legendary and irreplaceable than others who only made the small-print list. But I am all too willing to suggest that the EW Late Greats list displays a shameless lack of any sense of history.

This is not to say that I wasn’t pleased to see mini-articles on such personal favorites of mine as James Garner, Jan Hooks and Harold Ramis. I am not in particular a fan of either Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Maya Angelou, but that’s probably my problem – maybe the Emperor is wearing nifty threads. But the only choice among the EW Late Greats – the only one – representing a sense of popular culture history is Lauren Bacall.

Here are some of the late greats who weren’t deemed to have had the pop-cultural impact of Joey Ramone.

Sid Caesar

Phil Everly (even Joey would disagree with that one).

Sid Caesar (the father of sketch comedy) (Jan Hooks would, I think, agree with me).

Mickey Rooney (the biggest box-office star of the 1930s and a fine actor and comedian who worked for most of his 93 years).

Eli Wallach (one of the great character actors of all time).

P.D. James (major crime novelist).

And most egregious of all:
Shirley Temple

Shirley Temple Black (the most famous child star ever and a huge popular culture figure in the ‘30s and beyond, a virtual symbol of hope in the Depression).

There are other terrible omissions: Pete Seeger, Bob Hoskins, H.R. Giger, Elaine Stritch, Richard Attenborough, Ben Bradlee, among others. Surely the arbitrary figure of 12 Late Greats could have been expanded, and certainly a broader sense of the history of show biz and the arts might have been brought to bear.

Last night, on the final episode of the much-derided but actually excellent Aaron Sorkin series THE NEWSROOM, a responsible-minded young person – away from running the network’s web site for a time, in exile having protected a source – finds his even younger underlings in the midst of a blog entry they’re brainstorming. The subject is “The Most Over-rated Movies of All Time.” Their returning boss notices that the oldest over-rated film on the list is THE MATRIX, and comments that fourteen years and “all time” are two different measurements. He also asks them why they would list the most over-rated movies, as opposed to the most under-rated. They have no answer, other than to suggest it’s more fun. Rightly, the web site boss tells his peers he’s ashamed of them.

I may yet defend THE NEWSROOM at more length, but I’ll say only that one of its themes – very offensive to certain brats at the Huffington Post and AV, who treat Sorkin as if he’s Ed Wood – is that the news back in three-network times used to be better, or at least more responsible. That TV news used to be journalism. That people writing and delivering news once needed credentials – you know, experience.

My point is that EW’s writers share that same problem – thinking that fourteen years ago is the beginning of time.


Cosby, Capp and Blake

December 9th, 2014 by Max Allan Collins
Hickey & Boggs

A few days ago I received in the mail a long-ago pre-ordered blu-ray of HICKEY & BOGGS (1972), one of my favorite private eye movies; it’s an early script by Walter Hill and stars its director, Robert Culp, reunited with his I, SPY co-star, Bill Cosby. A few years before his death, Culp was at the San Diego Con and I was able to chat with him briefly and tell him how much I loved his movie; he seemed very pleased, and would be no doubt be thrilled by the availability of the film. I haven’t watched the disc yet, but I wonder if it’s going to be hard to get past Cosby’s presence in the light of the media storm around him.

I am frankly still trying to sort out my feelings about the Cosby scandal. Based on the where-there’s-smoke-there’s-fire theory, he seems to be a sexual sociopath; but the common aspects of the stories his alleged victims tell are so public, making up a new one wouldn’t be that tough. Public figures are easy targets, and I have to wonder how many famous actors and rock musicians who caroused their way through the Swinging Sixties and the sexual revolution of the Seventies aren’t just a little bit nervous right now. Do you really imagine every groupie Mick Jagger partied with was of legal age?

The best that can be said for Cosby is that he has been a hypocrite, spouting family values and peddling wholesome kiddie entertainment and telling young black men how to behave. You can’t be a pudding pitchman and America’s favorite TV dad and also hang out at the Playboy Mansion (as a married man) and not come up smelling like Brut.

It shouldn’t be necessary to say it, but women are correct that no means no, and that dressing provocatively is not an invitation to dine. At the same time, if I were the father of a gorgeous teenage daughter heading out to a party at Caligula’s place, I just might advise her that she’s putting herself in harm’s way.

Rich and powerful men – and show biz figures are often regular folks who rose (from poverty, in many cases) to dizzying heights – often think decadence is a privilege. But even if Cosby is the monster he’s being made out to be, should the court of public opinion pass the ultimate verdict? I’m just asking. When the journalistic landscape is blurred with blogs, and even Rolling Stone messes up on this very same issue of sexual misconduct (on campus), aren’t we being urged to listen to our basest instincts? Cosby has never been criminally charged. Allegations of misconduct many decades old are as unreliable as memories of that vintage.

My favorite comic strip is Li’l Abner, and I consider Al Capp a genius – a great writer, satirist, artist. But I have long struggled with the sexual misbehavior of Capp’s last years (concurrent with a shrill swing to the right in his comic strip, lessening its impact and its legacy). I dealt with this in my novel STRIP FOR MURDER, for which I’ve taken some heat as a Capp basher. I am anything but a Capp basher – he probably has few bigger fans. But he seems, tragically, to have fallen prey either to mental illness or his worst demons. Or perhaps it’s as easy (and hard) as this – a bad human being can also be a great artist.

The Capp conundrum has never stopped me from enjoying Li’l Abner. On the other hand, I can’t watch a NAKED GUN movie without squirming when O.J. is on screen. And Robert Blake was once a favorite of mine, but since the murder of his wife, I can’t watch anything he’s in. Will I react the same way to HICKEY & BOGGS? Don’t know yet.

Jackson Pollock killed a young woman and injured another when, in a deep drunken depression, he crashed his car. He killed himself, which is an artist’s privilege, but what the hell business did he have endangering one woman and murdering another? Does that make his art invalid? Does it put the splatter into his splatter paintings? I honestly don’t know.

Artists – and I include writers and film people and painters and our entire sorry breed – are all, to some degree, messed up. My wife Barb, in her wisdom, says that all an artist owes us is the art. God knows what Sinatra did behind closed doors, but oh when he was at the microphone. Bing Crosby beat up his boys, and two or three of ‘em killed themselves; but what would Christmas be without Der Bingle?

I would like to think that I will have no trouble watching HICKEY & BOGGS or episodes of I, SPY (I’ve never seen an episode of Cosby’s famous sitcom). But I’m not sure. I seem to be selective about who I forgive. Still, I come away with two things: Barb’s notion that artists only owe us their art; and my notion that the Internet is not the place to go for a fair trial.

* * *

ASK NOT did not win the Nero, an award I very much covet because (among other reasons) it is so damn cool looking. The winner was my friend David Morrell. Read all about it here.

Check out this nice review of THE GIRL HUNTERS blu-ray.

This is a lovely write-up about the Shamus Awards banquet at the recent Bouchercon.

Here’s a great review of the Nate Heller novel, MAJIC MAN.

What do you know? Some kind words about my BATMAN work, specifically the short story “Sound of One Hand Clapping.”

Finally, here’s a very interesting look at Warren Beatty’s half-hour “sequel” to the DICK TRACY film, co-starring my pal Leonard Maltin.


Why Critics Can’t Be Trusted With Sequels

December 2nd, 2014 by Max Allan Collins

The kneejerk reaction of most film critics to a sequel is to trash it. They walk in hating the movie they are being forced to see (usually for free, I might add). There have been exceptions – the second GODFATHER, for instance – but in recent years, when sequels have proliferated, the critical response to them has been so automatically negative as to make their comments worthless.

Case in point: two recent films that are sequels to very successful comedies have received almost interchangeably bad reviews: DUMB AND DUMBER TO and HORRIBLE BOSSES 2.

In the first instance, the critics have a point – this many-years-later sequel to that beloved celebration of idiocy is something many of us looked forward to. Who, with the ability to laugh, would not want to catch up with Lloyd and Harry? For the first two-thirds or so of the film, the movie is funny, and Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels deliver throughout. Then there is a bad and unfortunate stumble in the third act, where plot concerns kick in and laughs fall out. And the co-directing/scripting Farrelly Brothers seem out of step, their gross-out ‘90s sensibility turning cruel, not darkly funny. An easy line to cross, particularly when you’re struggling to catch lightning in a bottle twice. You’re more likely to get hit by it.

So DUMB AND DUMBER TO probably deserves some bad reviews – though not to the severe degree it suffered. But, yes, it’s a disappointment.

Then comes HORRIBLE BOSSES 2. The reviews read almost exactly the same as those for DUMB AND DUMBER TO. But the film is easily funnier than its predecessor, if having less integrity (this is a fate most sequels meet). BOSSES 2 builds on the first movie, turning its trio of former would-be murderers into would-be kidnappers (Jason Bateman, Charlie Day, Jason Sudekis), who are in high bumbling, fast-talking form. Bateman may be the funniest straight-man of all time, and that’s coming from somebody who reveres Bud Abbott and Dean Martin.

Jaimie Fox, Jennifer Aniston and Kevin Spacey reappear in top form (the latter a glorified cameo that still almost steals the film) while Chris Pine turns out to be very funny, at times seeming to channel William Shatner more overtly than in the reboot STAR TREK films. Then there’s the most horrible boss of all – Christoph Waltz – who is, as usual, a master of civility-coated villainy.

This is one of those richly comic films that will require several viewings to catch every funny line. At the same time, it manages to present a new story for the central characters that has enough echoes of the previous one to serve the “same but different” requirement. Because we are familiar with the characters, they don’t build – they reappear full-throttle and yet ascend from there.

A typical critical complaint: the three leads do not have horrible bosses this time. And that’s true – they are the horrible bosses, although in a much different way than the trio they hoped to murder last time around.

The lesson here is simple: don’t trust film critics (except me, of course). Most of them didn’t like either DUMB OR DUMBER or HORRIBLE BOSSES, either – so their reviews tend to be bad sequels to a previous bad review.

* * *

Our condolences to a good friend, Bill Crider, on the passing of his wife Judy. There was not a nicer, smarter couple in the world of mystery fiction. Hearing Bill describe Judy as his in-house editor, business manager and collaborator resonated deeply with me.

Typically, Bill hasn’t missed a day posting funny and informative squibs on what is my favorite blog site, hands down: Bill Crider’s Popular Culture Magazine.

* * *

I posted this already on Facebook, but here’s a terrific review of THE GIRL HUNTERS on blu-ray and DVD.

Here’s a nice review, with a mention of moi, of Otto Penzler’s The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries. This came out last year but is hitting the book stalls again. You can find a personal favorite short story of mine, “A Wreath for Marley,” in its pages.

I hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving. We certainly did, with son Nate and his wife Abby as well as granddog Toaster, who expects (and gets) walks in the most frigid of Iowa weather (which is pretty damn frigid). We shopped not at all on Thanksgiving (assuming “on line” doesn’t count) and on Saturday we fed mazuma into the mammoth maw of American consumer culture. My sale-item find – a new office chair with improved back support…black leather but with a gold Hawkeye symbol on that head rest. That echoey laughter you hear is from my late father, a devoted Hawkeye fan always mystified by my lack of interest in my alma mater’s sports program.


Thanksgiving Thoughts

November 25th, 2014 by Max Allan Collins

Thanksgiving has become to some – perhaps to many – a sort of speed bump on the way to Christmas. It’s long had the capacity to be annoying – no presents and football all day, which for the greedy non-sports fan is a kind of nightmare. I remember with a weird combination of vivid and blurry the years when Barb and I had three Thanksgiving meals to attend in one day due to a family split. And if you have a large dysfunctional family, there isn’t enough turkey in the world to put you to sleep through it.

This marks the first year I’ve seen Thanksgiving (always tough to market) skipped the moment Halloween slipped into its annual grave. Christmas trappings for sale, decorated downtowns, store sound systems pumping out carols and pop Xmas stuff inside and out. We’re talking November 1, people.

To some degree, of course, Black Friday is to blame, and it’s spread more like Black Plague, not only to Thanksgiving itself but the several weeks leading in. I appreciate a good buy (and I get most of mine online, checking for blu-ray, CD and book bargains) but the only thing Black Friday really makes me thankful for is the news footage of people getting trampled at Walmart seeking a flat-screen TV for twenty-five bucks.

Jean Shepherd

Our Thanksgiving looks to be the delight it’s been in recent years. Typical turkey dinner in the company of my wife, my son and daughter-in-law. A movie at the local theater. Probably more movies at home, including “The Star-Crossed Romance of Josephine Cosnowski,” the Jean Shepherd Thanksgiving story aired on PBS last century, inexplicably never (legally) marketed on home video, despite the cult of “A Christmas Story.” Black Friday shopping will probably be limited to on-line hijinks. I will be walking my granddog no matter how damn cold it is. I may even set aside the Heller novel I’m writing for a few days.

But let’s stop, shall we – as the creator of Quarry gets sniffy and sentimental – to do what the word Thanksgiving suggests: be thankful. May I share a few of the reasons why I’m thankful with you? Feel free to grind your teeth.

I married a beautiful girl in 1968 and am still married to her, though somewhere along the way she turned into a beautiful woman. That tops my thankful list, followed close by my talented son and his terrific wife. Barb and I are in good health, we own our home, and live in a pleasant Midwestern city where the cost of living is forgiving, the restaurants aren’t bad, and a new movie theater offers a bunch of screens. If you have not guessed, we are simple souls.

My career, in a tough field for anybody who hasn’t become a household name, is doing fine. There’s TV on the horizon for Quarry and maybe Heller, and I have a small, hearty group of publishers and editors who are keeping me busy and able to purchase blu-ray discs at will. (I’m also thankful that those blu-rays are deductible.) I had a genuine bestseller in SUPREME JUSTICE. I’m doing Quarry again after all these years, and Heller has a home for new novels and another home for all the old books. Most of my novels (excluding tie-ins) are in print or will be soon. This generates income resembling the pension money I’d be getting if I’d put money into a fund and not spent a lifetime buying movies, books and girlie mags. I also have three collaborators in Barb, Matt Clemens and the late Mickey Spillane who make my creative life easier and very rewarding. If this sounds like money is important to me, I remind you that I am the creator of Nathan Heller.

But in truth money is important to me only in the sense that I can continue doing what I immodestly feel I was put here to do: tell stories.

And if you’ve read this far, you are almost certainly among the not huge but very loyal audience that has kept me afloat in my goal of never having a real job.

So most of all – thank you.


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