Monthly Archives: July 2013

Simon Pegg, Nerd do Well: a Small Boy’s Journey to Becoming a Big Kid

(2013-07-07 096)Title: Nerd Do Well: a Small Boy’s Journey to Becoming a Big Kid

Author: Simon Pegg

Publication Information: New York, N.Y.: Gotham Books, 2011

ISBN: 978-1-592-40681-4

Library of Congress Classification: PN2598.P367

Library of Congress Subject Headings:
Pegg, Simon, 1970-
Motion picture actors and actresses—Great Britain—Biography
Television actors and actresses—Great Britain—Biography

It’s hard to call this book an autobiography, since Simon Pegg isn’t that old. I’d call it more of a memoir. This might be splitting hairs, but the book is by someone who is slightly younger than I am, and I still have a lot of living to do.

The book was interesting, but every few chapters Pegg would write about himself as a 007-type, Simon Bisley, complete with robot servant and big-breasted arch-enemy with whom he has terrific sex. Pegg is a comedian and knows his craft well, but this just was not my cup of tea. I found myself rolling my eyes at the beginning of each fantasy chapter. (Another reason I do not consider this an autobiography.)

Pegg talks about his childhood in England and the things that helped shape who he is today, specifically the first three Star Wars films. He recounts when he had to see Return of the Jedi after it premiered because of a medical procedure. This reminded me of when I first saw The Empire Strikes Back with my friend Tom at the Showcase Cinemas East outside of Pittsburgh on the day it premiered; the two of us also saw Return in the same theater three years later when it, too, premiered.

There are many growing up stories. No one who has read the book can question that Pegg is heterosexual, as he recounts the hundreds of women he fell in love with as a child, Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia, the French girl he met one summer, and of course the well-endowed Simon Bisley arch-enemy. He did a stand-up routine in grade school every Monday, a deal he made with a teacher to stop being disruptive in class.

The most poignant part of the book is when Pegg recalls the death of a childhood playmate, He was a rival for Pegg’s best friend’s affections and the two of them would fight occasionally when the three of them were together, but they were happy playing with their Star Wars action figures in the woods behind Pegg’s house. His best friend told him of the death, and then the two of them went into the woods to play with their action figures. It’s after this loss that Pegg begins to understand death.

Playing Scotty in the reboot of Star Trek was a dream come true for Pegg. He’s got some interesting stories about the people he’s met as an actor, and he’s made new friends since his career started. As for meeting his fans, Pegg tells a story that, as a child, he approached one of his idols for an autograph. Pegg got the autograph, but the person was rather nasty. This taught him a valuable lesson: no matter how he feels when someone approaches him, he always tries to be nice and give them the autograph or picture.

How I got interested in Pegg is when a co-worker told me about Shawn of the Dead. It’s a good movie. (I own it and watch it periodically.) Yes, the protagonist is an idiot, but he is a likable one. Pegg admits to being a dick when he was growing up, and embraces his nerdiness, hence the title. Besides Star Wars, he liked Planet of the Apes, Star Trek, Doctor Who, The Thunderbirds—all shows that I liked or later liked when I learned about them.

A definite must for Pegg fans.

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Michael Seth Starr, Hiding in Plain Sight: the Secret Life of Raymond Burr

(2013-07-07 095)Title: Hiding in Plain Sight: the Secret Life of Raymond Burr

Author: Michael Seth Starr

ISBN: 978-1-55783-694-6

Publication Information: New York: Applause Theater & Cinema Books, 2008

Library of Congress Classification: PN2287.B88

Library of Congress Subject Headings:
Burr, Raymond, 1917-1993
Actors—United States—Biography

Raymond Burr came from the same generation as Rock Hudson and Jim Nabors where homosexuality was not only a crime, but it was not talked about. All gay actors were closeted, and the studios had women that they would have their male stars “date” by taking them to various appearances at events. Some, such as Hudson and Burr, actually were married. In their case, the marriages ended in divorce.

Burr was a product of his time. He told the story that he had been married before his actual marriage. This marriage resulted in a son. His wife was killed in the airplane crash that took Leslie Howard’s life and his son, at the age of 10, died of leukemia. There was no truth to these stories, but Burr repeated and embelished them throughout the decades. Burr refused to talk about them whenever asked, so that it became accepted as gospel until after Burr’s death. Even in 1991, when he had returned to television in an Ironside movie, Burr talked about finding someone to finally marry and settle down. Burr had already been with his partner, Robert Benevides, for decades.

The gossip columnists were all-powerful in early Hollywood, and Burr made friends with Hedda Hopper, who helped keep his sexuality a secret. In return, Burr would pass on tidbits of information he would learn from working on the Hollywood sets and the dinner parties he would throw. (Burr loved to cook.) Hopper’s son William became one of the regulars on Perry Mason.

Though a very busy character actor once he had established his career, Burr only played the heavy, and he was desperate to get out from under that image. His first leading role was as a defense attorney in Please Murder Me. Playing opposite him was Angela Lansbury as the scheming, manipulative murderer whom Burr’s character gets off. However, it was Perry Mason that changed the public view of Burr. Perry Mason proved so popular that it spawned a series of reunion movies that outlasted Burr, who died in 1993.

Burr was a private person, though, and most people were not able to penetrate his demeanor. He was a big man, over six foot, and always struggled with his weight. A heavy smoker in his early years, Burr had a deep, commanding voice and was always able to steer conversations with reporters. He kept his proclivities well-hidden, but that did not mean that his fellow actors did not know that he was gay. As Angela Lansbury said, “We know there were certain aspects of their [male actors’] lives that weren’t necessarily one thing or another, but in those days they were such icons in the movies that nobody bothered—and certainly it never occurred to the public, I’m sure.” In Burr’s case, it took him awhile to become an “icon,” and in the meantime he kept who he really was well-hidden.

This book isn’t a who-did-Burr-do, but a biography about a gay actor who had to hide who he was all his life. Burr had to assume a persona where he was heterosexual, a man’s man. Perhaps what is heartening about Burr’s life is that he had a wonderful one in spite of the public lies, and was happy with his partner. Later in life after living on a Polynesian island he bought from a dying Englishwoman, Burr and Benevides relocated to California where they started a winery, which is still producing wines.

The book is an easy read. The focus is definitely on Burr and his career in Hollywood. I felt that there was something lacking, though. Burr did not write an autobiography, so any personal insights are impossible, and unless Benevides writes an autobiography of his life with Burr, some things will remain a mystery.

Perhaps this is the way it should be.

Peter Stanford, The Legend of Pope Joan

(2013-07-07 094)Title: The Legend of Pope Joan

Author: Peter Stanford

Publication Information: New York: Berkley Books, 2000

ISBN: 0-425-17347-X (i.e. 978-0-42-517347-3)

Library of Congress Classification: BX958.F2

Library of Congress Subject Headings:
Joan (Legendary pope)
Church history—Middle Ages, 600-1500.
Popes—Legends.

First of all, I liked this book.

I wasn’t sure that I was going to when I started it. First, Peter Stanford is a journalist and not an academic. The book is his first person account of how he got interested in the Pope Joan legend while staying in Rome and what he did to investigate it. The legend goes that a woman was able to con her way into being made pope and reigned for two years or so before giving birth during a papal procession. There are various versions of the story, either Joan and the child were immediately murdered by the mob, or only Joan was murdered and the child was allowed to live.

Is the story true? Stanford believes there is something to it and he travels around Italy tracking down clues to the Pope Joan story. He recounts one of the darker histories of the papacy, when the throne of St. Peter was controlled by the House of Theophylact from 911 through 1048. Theophylact’s wife, Theodora, and his mother-in-law, Marozia, sought to re-establish the greatness of Rome and planned on using the papacy to do it. No less than ten popes were brought to power by or under the influence of this house. The corruption and misery culminated in the “election” of John XII, called the “Christian Caligula.”

For Edward Gibbon, Pope Joan was a code for the House of Theophylact and all its corruption. Stanford refutes this, however, citing that all theologians knew the stories of the house and openly recorded the transgressions without the use of any code. Nor is Pope Joan a fabrication of reformers trying to discredit and embarrass the Roman Catholic Church; information on Joan predates the Reformation. Stanford talks to those who had studied Pope Joan before him, but they shed no new light on the mystery.

One interesting aspect of Stanford’s study is that he had a psychological profile created for a woman like Joan. Joan, the daughter of Christian missionaries from England, was born and raised in Germany and would have been educated there. Taking into account the times and the limitations put upon women, what would it take for a very intelligent woman to actually rise in the Church while hiding her sexuality? This part of the book is fascinating.

But perhaps the most revealing part of the book has nothing to do with the Pope Joan legend, but with women who have already been ordained Roman Catholic priests. Stanford views them as modern-day Pope Joans. He interviews a woman in the Czech Republic who was ordained a Catholic priest during the communist era by Bishop Felix Davidek.

Stanford discusses the so-called “Mexican faculties,” the name of which comes from the anti-clerical and anti-Church behavior during the Mexican Revolution. Because of immediate threats to the Church, the “Mexican faculties” allow priests to consecrate other priests and bishops to consecrate other bishops. This is how Bishop Jan Blaha ordained Davidek in 1968. The communist regime in Czechoslovakia was extremely repressive, and there was a fear that the Roman Catholic Church would be eradicated, which led to this extraordinary situation. It was Bishop Davidek who, in 1970, believed that by ordaining married men and women they would be less likely to be suspected by the government and could operate as clerics in secret without discovery. In the case of the woman Stanford interviewed, she was able to celebrate communion, hear confessions and perform other clerical duties for those Catholics imprisoned; no one in authority suspected a woman could be a priest. This seemingly validated Davidek’s initiative.

Sadly, Davidek died in 1988, one year before Gorbachev’s perestroika began thawing East-West relations that resulted in the collapse of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe. Once Czechoslovakia was free, Rome refused to acknowledge Davidek’s ordination of women; the ordained men were told to join the Uniate church, those Eastern Christians who kept the Eastern Orthodox rites but acknowledged papal primacy; this church, like the Eastern Orthodox churches, have married priests. These men are betrayed, according to Stanford, since they have no connection to the Uniates but are Roman Catholics. At least they have an option in which to remain priests. The women have no recourse. Rome will not recognize the ordination of women under any circumstances. With Davidek already dead, he could not defend his actions.

As older copies of Christian scriptures are found— predating the traditional holy writings by hundreds of years—we are discovering that pronouns were changed in many works from female to male, and that there are other Christian works where women are in leadership positions; there is evidence that women also performed clerical duties. Nonetheless, Rome—and the Eastern Orthodox churches for that matter—refuse to even consider the possibility of women priests.

Was there a Pope Joan? There have been other books written about the possibility of a female pope. Many of these were written by academics. I have not read them, but I can say that I enjoyed this book. This is a very good introduction to the topic.