My Own Private Top-Ten or Wonder Women of 2017

To repeat: I don’t do Top-Ten lists of movies or television or even books, mostly because none of them need my help as much as jazz does. What I’ve done instead over the past few years is assemble potpourri of popular culture items that I’ve found especially meaningful, ennobling and distinctive over the previous 12 months. I chose this year’s theme for many reasons, some of which you may infer from recent headlines. But primarily because it’s been clear to me for some time now that women have achieved prominence and glory disproportionate to the overall respect, economic or otherwise, they receive from society-at-large. Besides: Women have been doing some remarkable stuff in The Culture this year, as you’ll see below. So yeah, we’re so doing this. Here and now. And I apologize in advance for anybody I may have forgotten about or omitted. There’s always next year, yes?

tracee ellis ross freeze ray

Blackish kitchen

1.) The women of black-ish – There are few things more satisfying to a couch potato emeritus than watching a sitcom hit full stride. By my own reckoning, black-ish, now in the middle of a how-can-they-possibly-top-this Season 4, is striding so confidently ahead of the analog TV pack that it’s hard to imagine anything else in the genre catching up to it, which is saying a lot given how strong that competition is, even on its own network (ABC). Creator-producer Kenya Barris, his collaborators and the whole cast deserve serial Emmys, most especially for its hyper-magnetic women. Begin with the routinely magnificent Tracee Ellis Ross (Bow) who, among her many comedic attributes, is the post-Millennial master of the “freeze-ray” stare deployed throughout sitcom history against bombastic, self-deluded husbands. (See Alice Kramden nod, scowling at Ralph.) It’s probably working since husband Dre (Anthony Anderson) has gotten less delusional over time, especially about his mother Ruby (the National Treasure that is Jenifer Lewis), at once the grand dame, caffeinated diva and galloping id of Family Johnson. I’ve missed the languid graces of big sister Zoey (Yara Shahidi) now that she’s in college most of the time. But kid sister Diane (Marsai Martin) more than makes up for her absence. She’s poker-faced anti-matter to terminally cute Rudy Huxtable, throwing shade on everybody else’s pretenses with a neurosurgeon’s icy precision. Of course, she’s my favorite – but don’t tell the rest of them. Everybody in this household is special in her (and his) own way.

 

 

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2.) Greta Gerwig & Laurie Metcalf – All I’m going to mention about Lady Bird is one scene. Just one. Laurie Metcalf is alone in a car, driving around in a circle, saying nothing. That’s all that happens – or at least that’s all I’m disclosing here. Yet when you see it, you’ll realize once again how such moments make a small picture gigantic. Alone, that scene reveals three bankable, self-evident truths: You will be talking about this movie well past New Year’s, Laurie Metcalf will win an Oscar and Greta Gerwig has the potential to make a masterwork. This isn’t it, despite what you’ve heard. But it’s within her reach. Wait.

 

 

Tiffany Haddish
3.) Tiffany HaddishGirls Trip was the year’s springiest jack-in-the-box-office coup. Directed with unassuming charm by the habitually underrated Malcolm L. Lee, the movie carries a set-up that could have been too sudsy by half if it weren’t for its gently timed raunchiness and, most especially, Haddish’s explosive presence. Not since a young Michael Keaton ate Henry Winkler’s lunch, along with most of the scenery, in 1982’s Night Shift has anybody burst forward on the big screen with such lets-get-this-party-started swagger. The only thing that’s been more fun to watch than her performance (which has already won a New York Film Critics Circle Award) is the smart and jaunty manner with which she’s been carrying her triumph throughout the Global Village. Take ten minutes off from a hard day to listen as she tells tell Jimmy Kimmel how she took Mr. and Mrs. Fresh Prince on a road trip. Guaranteed, you will come away thinking: Now this is how you’re supposed to treat a power couple!

 

 

 

 

4.) Nicole Kidman

 

nicole kidman big little lies

 

With all the chatter over the last decade about J-Law, Emma Stone and other emerging young stars, we somehow forgot that Kidman was still very much in the game. We won’t make that mistake again any time soon. Being the droll, commanding backbone bracing Sofia Coppola’s gossamer remake of The Beguiled would have been enough to renew our curiosity. But what truly realigned Kidman with our over-extended attention spans was her riveting portrayal in HBO’s Big Little Lies of an affluent, formidable attorney who carries the ongoing trauma of her husband’s physical abuse with barely-sustained composure. I can’t say it any better than The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum who wrote, “While other actors specialize in transparency, Kidman has a different gift: She can wear a mask and simultaneously let you feel what it’s like to hide behind it.”

 

 

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5.) Rhiannon Giddens – She gets slammed in some quarters as just another smarty-pants “dabbler” in Americana and, contrarily, by those who believe she taints her aspirations towards authenticity (or “authenticity”) by slipping some modern pop covers into her playbook. Sure, I wouldn’t mind seeing her exclusively with the Carolina Chocolate Drops because as a unit they schooled you as emphatically as they kicked ass. But I prefer to think she sees everything and anything she tries out as authentic and, in doing so, dares to reshape whatever we mean by the “traditional music” that defines our troubled, fractured land. In another better time than ours, Freedom Highway (Nonesuch), released earlier this year, could have been one of those crossover albums that encourages, if not creates widespread cultural consensus. Also, I know I don’t get out much, but when I saw her live this year at WXPN’s World Café in Philadelphia, she made me dream again of retrieving lost or distant possibilities. When you hear her cover of “I Wont Back Down,” conceived originally by one of the souls who Went Home in 2017, you may know what I mean. Or not. Don’t care. Love her.

 

 

 

 

6.) Jemele Hill, Jessica Mendoza & Rachel Nichols on ESPN

 

Bristol, CT - April 20, 2017 - Studio X: Jemele Hill on the set of SC6 with Michael and Jemele (Photo by Allen Kee / ESPN Images)

Sep 17, 2014; Anaheim, CA, USA; ESPN reporter Jessica Mendoza during the MLB game between the Seattle Mariners and the Los Angeles Angels at Angel Stadium of Anaheim. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports usp ORG XMIT: USATSI-169850 [Via MerlinFTP Drop]

rachel nichols jumpThe Worldwide Leader in Sports has gone/is going through a rough patch, losing many of its best-known employees through layoffs, defections, retirement and overall attrition. What keeps me dropping by, mostly, are dauntless worker bees such as Nichols, a crafty veteran of the sports media wars who presides over the daily NBA forum, The Jump, with such easygoing authority and knowledgeable wit that the show’s become one of the major factors in luring me (almost) all the back to the Church of Professional Basketball. On the other hand, I’ve never left baseball and Mendoza’s game analysis on the Worldwide Leader’s Sunday Night Baseball is both bright AND smart without coming on too hard with attitude or being too soft on the players. With play-by-play stalwart Dan Shulman stepping away from the booth and tag-team partner Aaron Boone heading for the Yankees dugout to put his managerial presumptions to the ultimate test, Mendoza is now the Last One Sitting for the 2018 season. My choice for a partner would be the redoubtable Ron Darling (who admires her work), but that would break up the Gary-Keith-Ronnie rock-and-roll band that makes Mets fans like me smile through our tears and sorrow. Last, but by no means least is Hill, who’s shown both class and resilience during two high-profile dust-ups over inopportune (but to this reporter, not altogether inappropriate) tweeting. There’s not much she or anybody else can do about Donald Trump or Jerry Jones. Nor is there much to be done about varied harpers and carpers who don’t believe she and her co-host Michael Smith should helm the Worldwide Leader’s plum weekdays-at-6p.m. edition of SportsCenter. All she can do is what she’s been doing: Trading fours with Smith at the dinner hour the way Bird and Diz used to after midnight on 52nd Street during the Truman era and deploying her sportswriter’s street wisdom on every knotty sports-related controversy the Digital Age can set off.

 

Attica Locke Bluebird Bluebird

 

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7.) Danzy Senna & Attica Locke – It’s been another stellar year for women-of-color in the Lit Biz. Leading the parade, and not just in my opinion, is Jesmyn Ward’s haunting Sing, Unburied, Sing, which has already been short-listed for almost as many awards as Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad was a year ago. I’m going to use this space, however, to celebrate two relatively unsung achievements: Senna’s New People, a rom-com about interracial love in 21st century New York City, which is, quoting brazenly from Newsday’s review, “a martini-dry, espresso-dark comedy of contemporary manners” with a “compound of caustic observations and shrewd characterizations [that] could only have emerged from a writer as finely tuned to her social milieu as [Jane] Austen was to hers.” Locke, who also writes scripts for Empire, has spent this decade ascending to the front rank of America’s crime novelists, many of whom have sung her praises for such novels as 2009’s Black Water Rising and 2015’s Pleasantville. This year’s Bluebird, Bluebird, about a black Texas Ranger who has to both tread delicately and act decisively in two racially-charged murder cases, displays leaner, tighter sinew in her storytelling and deeper, more controlled lyricism in her style. And are we all agreed that Locke has one of the coolest bylines ever, regardless of genre or place-of-origin?

8.) Maria Bamford —

 

 

I have not yet seen the new season of Lady Dynamite, but I think she belongs on this list anyway because she remains a galvanizing  inspiration to humanity, which quite likely doesn’t deserve her, just as it didn’t deserve Jonathan Winters in whose company among great stand-up surrealists she surely belongs. If I didn’t think it would slow her roll, I’d insist Duluth’s pride-and-joy (she gave the commencement this year at the University of Minnesota) take over regular hosting duties at Prairie Home Companion. This recent clip from the show suggests, at least to me, how prominently she stands out in this crowd.

9.) Gal Gadot 

Gal Godot

Yes, she was the best reason to see Wonder Woman and, really, the ONLY reason to see Justice League. If you miss her whenever she’s not on-screen, that opens up the working definition of a movie star and Gadot may well be the closest we’ve come in recent years to seeing somebody completely inhabit that enchanted aura. Not yet, though. We still need to see her prominently placed in something besides Diana Prince’s battle armor. Off-screen, she’s also thrown some superhuman muscle against Hollywood sex predators. But if there’s a single moment from last year that makes us thankful that she’s in our world, it didn’t come from her Saturday Night Live hosting gig or any of her talk-show appearances. It was this moment at San Diego Comic-Con where she connected most tenderly with a young fan. After seeing this, I didn’t want to hear from anybody with a real or imagined gripe against her. To borrow and bend a phrase associated with both Walter Brennan and Elliot Gould, she’s OK with me.

 

 

 

 

10.) President Laura Montez from HBO’s Veep – At concluding points of Veep’s last two seasons, Montez (Andrea Savage) came across mostly as a plot device, an immaculately coifed sharp stone jutting out in the spiraling trajectories of Selena Meyer’s (Julia-Louis Dreyfus) political career and self-esteem. But when she gets sustained on-camera time, Savage’s character displays hints of a powerful motor humming beneath her decorous surface. That engine roars during an Oval Office encounter with the clueless one-term congressman and “sentient enema” (not my phrase) Jonah Ryan (Timothy Simons) with whom the president wearily negotiates terms for settling a government shutdown almost as meaningless as the ones carried out in real-life. Watching this scene, you somehow find communion with Montez as she reacts to every stupid thing that spews out of Jonah’s mouth the way we’ve been reacting to whatever our — um — “real” president’s been tweeting and blustering about every morning. Even Veep can’t altogether compete with the actual absurdities of the Trump administration, which may be one of the reasons it’s set to close shop after next season. Right now, I would be up for a whole new series with Laura Montez’s White House struggling to clean up the messes left behind by its predecessors. Who’s with me on this? Don’t answer until you check The Real Donald Trump’s tweet page…wait! What did he do? What did he do NOW?

 

Clint Am Us (or US)

I didn’t witness Clint Eastwood’s ride into Samuel Beckett territory last night as I had tickets to see the Best Team in Baseball play the Defending World Series Champions. I heard about it, though, the minute I came home from Nationals Park and patched into the digital hive-mind. And the chatter continues well past dawn (Oh the humanity!): The bitter laughter, the gnashing of teeth, the told-you-so smugness from the Clint haters juxtaposed with the exasperated Clint acolytes who have for decades defended his work despite his politics and whose reactions to last night’s monologue-with-empty-chair range from bemusement to avowals that they’ll never watch his Blu-Rays again.

As Marie Windsor, that great Mormon character actress, once muttered to a randy Jeff Bridges in Hearts of the West, “Lie down and cool off!” Those taken aback by Eastwood’s woozy-looking appearance should have taken the time yesterday afternoon to consult Christopher Orr’s astute preview charting the peripatetic course of Eastwood’s politics. (Note: I said “politics”, not “ideology.” We’ll discuss the distinction further along.) As Orr recounts, Eastwood has always been the Republican equivalent of a “yellow-dog Democrat”, i.e. someone who’d vote for a Democrat even if it were a yellow dog. Indeed, Clint’s been truer to the GOP than many a so-called Reagan Democrat insisting on being the “true” voice of the legacies of FDR, Truman, JFK and so on.

Still, for a lifelong Republican, Eastwood’s made some funny noises over time; the most recent of them coming in a Super Bowl commercial for Chrysler this past February with his “Halftime for America” narration that was so reminiscent of a Joe Biden pep rally that Karl Rove called him out for it. (All Eastwood had to do, apparently, was squint back at Rove to make Ol’ Turd-Blossom say nothing more about the matter.) He cops to being fiscally conservative, but is also pro-choice, pro-gay-marriage and, as his movies, musical tastes and inter-personal relationships prove, sympathetic to multi-cultural concerns.

In short, he’s a lot of things at once and no one thing in particular. When you smile and say, “Hello”, to Mr. Eastwood, you are greeting the American electorate itself whose politics are considered a personal, even an intimate matter because they come not from the brain, or the heart, but from the glands.

The extremist-libertarian Republicans who seek to squeeze Eastwood and, for that matter, the voters into their ideological camp are in for profound disappointment, no matter what transpired last night or will happen over the next couple months. This is because – and let’s read along slowly because some of you have trouble accepting this – America is not now and never has been an ideological country. Let me summarize:
Americans?
Ideological?
Antithetical!
No way!
Aint Happ’nin!
What do you want on your pizza?

 

Those liberal Lefties in whose consequentiality Newt Gingrich continues to invest a near-poignant belief stumbled into the aforementioned conclusion decades ago, but have yet to figure out what to do about it. Paul Ryan and company will assuredly discover the same thing. The only question being how much damage to Truth and Justice will be done by then.

As confirmation for the glandular state of political life, or at least, the perception of political life, one need look no further than Veep, the HBO sitcom starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus as a self-aggrandizing, self-sabotaging VPOTUS. As with many critics of the series, I had misgivings early on about the show’s sly avoidance of fixing  Dreyfus’s Selena Mayer in any political party or (of course) ideology. Her pet causes – filibuster reform, the environment – are non-controversial and vaguely ecumenical enough not to distract from the office slapstick that’s the show’s principal attribute.

After several episodes (which I watched in repeats this past week mostly as refuge from Tampa’s muggy rhetoric), even these “issues” become less relevant than Selena’s slow-burning sense of personal affront at every staff blunder, mismanaged transaction and embarrassing gaffe. It’s not about oil or filibusters, dammit, it’s about me! How much more perfect the country would be if everybody was like me! No, not like me! Me! The late Gore Vidal, in his serene vanity, could relate to Selena’s frustration. And so, for that matter, could his old antagonist, William F. Buckley Jr. More to the point, so could most American voters for whom “issues” matter less than whatever it is matters to their own immediate needs.

I’m not saying there aren’t politicians whose actions, unlike Selena’s, are set in motion by something greater than their own personal gratifications. (I know, for a fact, that there are.) I do think, however, that’s what the majority of Americans believe. And they will vote this fall out of the same soft-clay visceral instincts that, apparently, guide even a rock-ribbed, yellow-dog Republican like Clint Eastwood, who, like the Jazz Guy he is, makes his mind up as he goes along. So laugh or howl at the geezer babbling to an empty chair. Just know that you’re also laughing and howling at yourselves.