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Paul Haggis: Hollywood's Brechtian advocate

By Michael Moriarty
web posted March 13, 2006 

It began when Barbra Streisand and her husband James Brolin chose to make an unflattering TV-movie on The Reagans. Streisand, aging and going to fat, is seeing her career collapse. Former President Ronald Reagan is not a commander-in-chief to look down upon with impunity. He still has legions of friends and admirers in Hollywood. Streisand paid the price for her transgression, although I’m happy to see that Brolin, my co-star in Children of Fortune, continues to work steadily in films and television.

Paul HaggisIt should have been no surprise when Canadian writer/director/producer Paul Haggis proclaimed at the last Academy Awards ceremony that the Shakespearean day and age of art holding up a mirror to nature is over and must be replaced by a Brechtian hammer. So obviously Haggis is taking his orders from the same Marxist manuals as Bertolt Brecht, the gifted playwright who, after his sojourn in Hollywood, chose to return to East Berlin to run an agitprop theatre at the height of the Cold War.

I suspect Haggis is more in tune with the villainess of his Million Dollar Baby script (the German ex-prostitute-turned-boxer who fights dirty and takes no prisoners), since Brecht’s theatre defines the identity of a creepy East Berlin. There is of course the always sympathetic Morgan Freeman character who simply watches what he sees as inevitable. The “Revolution,” as Freeman pointed out to me personally during the filming of Along Came a Spider, is an obligatory calling to any authentically serious artist.

Later, as I viewed Million Dollar Baby, I watched Clint Eastwood help a naive, female, boxing careerist die in her hospital bed, and then carry himself off into nowhere like the Preacher in Pale Rider, the 1985 western he directed in which I co-starred. (Despite his evident satisfaction with my performance in the second lead, Eastwood never asked for me to work with him again.)

Does Haggis believe Brecht would remain a Stalinist, or would the author of The Threepenny Opera worship a real-life Mack the Knife like Mao Zedong?

James Joyce, an Irish exile in Paris, projected his own estimate of literature’s real motive: revenge. He laid it upon William Shakespeare when he had Stephen Dedalus, co-hero of his classic novel Ulysses, describe what the names of the characters in Hamlet represented in the Bard’s personal life. Apparently Shakespeare was visiting his own bloodlust upon his enemies.

Communism was so rife in 1930s Paris that one wonders whether Leopold Bloom, the main protagonist actually in the novel à clef Ulysses, was actually Joyce’s version of Karl Marx or not.

Joyce, hardly a Brechtian, had been trained by Jesuits at Trinity College in Dublin. With such genius, I suspect he ended up a heterosexual, Irish version of the Italian homosexual, Catholic/Communist film director Pier Paolo Pasolini, serving two masters at the same time – Christ and Marx. I doubt if Haggis, a devout Brechtian, suffers from such divided loyalties, although he does inject a Catholic priest into the life of Eastwood’s Frankie Dunn character in Million Dollar Baby. Haggis seems to be thumbing his nose at the Catholic Church.

I’ve lived intimately with the spirit of Shakespeare since I was 14 years old and asked by the Jesuit Father Samual Listermann of the University of Detroit High School to read the role of Macduff’s son in the Bard’s Macbeth. Since then, in my own mind at least, there have been the divinely good and evil humanities of the Bard, from Richard III to King Lear and Prospero of The Tempest, and the rest of the human race endeavoring to capture a small percentage of the lifeforce within such huge souls as Shakespeare in his genius created.

I have performed in four of Brecht’s works: as Mack the Knife in The Threepenny Opera; as Ludovico, the suitor to the daughter of Brecht’s Galileo; as George Garga in Jungle of Cities; and as the Dionysian poet in a reading of Baal. More Greek than Shakespearean, Brecht’s works unveil a Chorus in every actor on stage, one always prepared, at any moment, to remind the audience they are in a theatre and not a fairy tale, and they have come to be taught, hammered into enlightenment.

Oh, those of you
Who live on when we are dead,
Let not your “noble hearts” against us harden!
Nor smile not
When the noose shall claim our head!
A silly, secret smile
To ease your burden!

That’s a bit of Mack the Knife’s aria before he’s hanged. There’s a “thumb your nose” at the bourgeoisie if you like that sort of thing. All in all, I’d prefer Miles Davis turning his back on me while he played. I can still hear the horn through the microphone and that, after all, is what we all came to listen to – the music.

Jon Stewart, the host of this year’s Academy Awards show, suggested that he and the audience might, all together now, tear down the big statue of the Oscar on stage and “bring Democracy back to Hollywood.”

David Letterman, as a previous host of the Awards, cracked three Janet Reno jokes to a deafeningly silent response, and was not asked back. I doubt if the Academy, given its increasingly Brechtian mood, its desire to “hammer” Americans into “growing up,” will bring back a host who would remind them of Democracy.

I’ve yet to see Haggis’ award-winning Crash. I’ve asked about it and seen the clip that includes the de rigueur swipe at the black bourgeoisie, but the brutal opening between Matt Dillon and Thandie Newton, as described to me at any rate, seems as much like Eugenics as it does a knee-jerk indictment of American law enforcement and racism… as if the Left’s hallowed France isn’t having her own problems with her first actual effort at integration some 217 years after her epochal Revolution.

Is the East Berliner, the Medusa-like boxer of Million Dollar Baby played by Lucia Rijker, Haggis’ idea of a villainess or, in Brechtian terms, the vengeful prostitute in Mack the Knife’s stable come to wreak vengeance upon a deluded Judeo-Christian bourgeoisie?

So far, I smell a Lear in Haggis who would enjoy playing the referee of that fix and who would watch Cordelia euthanized while singing,

Oh, the shark has
Pearly teeth, dear!

Michael Moriarty is a Golden Globe and Emmy Award-winning actor who has appeared in the landmark television series Law and Order, the mini-series Taken, and the TV-movie The 4400. He recently starred in Pick Me Up, an episode of the Showtime TV series Masters of Horror. Michael Moriarty is also running for President of the United States in 2008 as a candidate for the Realists Party. To find out more about Moriarty’s presidential campaign, contact rainbowfamily2008@yahoo.com.


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