Why Eli Wallach Keeps Making Me Cry
I’ve rewatched Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip twice in the last few weeks. And it doesn’t matter how many times I watch it, I will always cry at certain things; when Jordan first wakes up to see her baby girl, when Matt tells the writing staff why they had to cut the sketch about the stupid guy taking hostages, when Tom confirms his brother has been rescued. There are others, of course, but none of them compare to the moment Eli Wallach tells the story of Clifford Odets and the night before his testimony to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).
One of the things I truly loved about Studio 60, was how much attention it paid to the rich and sad history of Hollywood. It seems unreal to me, just how few people know that history. I used to watch the show with my family, and have to explain things like Ed Asner’s joke about not knowing United Artists’ still existed. And when Jack Rudolph starts to tear up at the realization that we don’t really know where the first list of alleged communists came from; I really can’t explain to anyone what his emotions are based in, without telling them a lot more history than an hour of television can offer.
These are the moments when Studio 60 really shined for me. Because it let me tap into the feelings I had when I first started to learn about McCarthyism, the black lists, the Hollywood Ten, and HUAC. Those feelings were a deep ache in my gut. I’m sure most people have some particular historical period which kicks them - really hard - in the stomach. For me, this is the biggest wrench. Many people don’t get my fascination, but it really comes down to Jack’s tears and Eli’s outrage and betrayal. As a person who has long adored - and desire to be a part of - the storytellers of the Hollywood system, I feel that sense of anger and revulsion at remembering a time in our history where artists were called traitors because they believed in this country.
And that, in a nutshell, is what it comes down to. The ‘unfriendly’ witnesses, the Hollywood Ten, those who refused to cooperate; these people believed that ideas weren’t criminal, and as such they gave no credence to a tribunal intended to lock up free minds and free speech. They fought, and some of them paid dearly for it. Studio 60 came along at a very important time for those of use cringing at an environment that seemed ready to explode all over again. The Dixie Chicks and Toby Keith, Michael Moore being booed at the Oscars, Martin Sheen’s Visa ad being pulled; it seemed as much as the country was ready to hate anyone protesting the wars, we were especially ready to hate artists who spoke out. Even now, a few years later, there are moments when the world is still ready to crucify Hollywood for destroying the minds and hearts of America. That, more than even my love of the show and its wonderful collection of storytellers, is why I miss Studio 60 so tremendously. And of course, for moments like these...
Matt: You think I have contempt for my government.
Matt: Harry, if I do, it ain't nothing compared to the contempt than my government has for me.
Harriett: Matt, your government has no idea who you are.
Matt: I know. But that doesn't stop them from getting votes by calling me a lazy, pampered, anti-American, anti-family, immoral, perverted, dishonorable, weak fairy.
Hollywood has a strong influence on this country, there’s no denying that. But it always strikes me how people ignore the two-way street. As quick as they are assume that a new freedom of sexuality in this country is a product of Hollywood, it seems far more likely that Hollywood is reflecting the changing views of the people. After all, people do make movies and TV shows. Sure, a lot more liberal than conservative people. But that is another unavoidable fact; artists tend more toward progressive thinking and politics. They’re also not afraid to shout out their ideals because they don’t have the stage fright of the average person. But it also makes them a target of conservative ideals, because they can point West and find dozens of people for their followers to sneer at.
Which brings me to Harriet Hayes; the would-be token Christian of the Studio 60 world. I say would be, because Harriet was no one’s token. Sarah Paulson’s moving portrayal, combined with Aaron Sorkin’s brilliant words, gave us a great example of the kind of Christian progressives can be proud of. And no, it wasn’t because she didn’t mind sketches like Crazy Christians and admitting to liking premarital sex. It was because she truly never impressed her beliefs on others. Sure, she’d make jokes that God liked her better because he restored the studio’s power at her behest, but that was simply friendly jibes. Her coworkers/friends never minded because they knew Harriet never thought less of them for their lack of faith. Because in Harriet’s mind, the God she loved would never punish these talented, intelligent, kind and loving people by sending them to hell.
As far as Jesus’ fandom goes; Harriet Hayes was at the top of the list. But she never treated her love of ‘god’ and JC as a platform that put her above anyone else. In fact, she was the epitome of turn the other cheek; even while a militant gay man was screaming in her face, daring her to call him a faggot, pretending as if she’s already used worse language in the article that had offended him. And make no mistake, in that instance, Harry was the victim. Even if you were pissed as hell at what she did say in the badly edited interview, never once did she use any speech that could be qualified as hate. I’m not even sure a good Christian girl like Harry knows how to hate. She was really the kind of character who loved everyone, not because she believed Jesus loved them, but for the same reasons she believed he did; because flawed or not we’re all just people doing what we can to get by. This is why her religion is never marginalized by her co-workers, including devout atheist Matt. Yes, it’s a source of comedy; but at the Addison Theater, everything is a source of comedy.
And comedy is how the cast and crew of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip survive their complicated and tricky lives. Because, while it is absolutely true that Hollywood is as full of ‘normal people’ as any town in the United States of America, they do have one particular difference in their day to day lives; everything they say/do/produce is scrutinized by half the world. In that way, Studio 60’s premise is a lot like West Wing’s; yes these are normal people, but no one is pretending they lead entirely normal lives. The decisions they make have ripple effects well beyond what they can plan for, and that reality weighs on the shoulders of many.
But in Studio 60, we finally have a show that aims to prove something very important to the country; Hollywood consists of a lot more than the famous ‘liberals’ that people tend to sneer at. Hollywood is like any other town in the country; it has influential and affluent people at the helm, but most people are just doing their job and the best they can to make a living, raise a family, etc. It is populated with liberals, conservatives, and people who couldn’t care less about politics. And that’s the true history of the Hollywood; normal people, doing an unusual job, but still just trying to do it the best they can. That’s what Studio 60 aimed to show more than anything; that these are normal flawed humans, really no different than the people watching them at home.
*Thank you to Netflix On Demand for feeding my unending desire to find new beloved movies/shows and allowing me to revisit those which have already stolen my heart. A film/tv-aholic is grateful for you.
* FBI files and the ‘friendly’ HUAC witnesses were alleged to have been the original authors, but there has also been speculation that the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals had a hand in it.